Aristotle’s Book 5 from the Eudemian Ethics focuses on the matter of intellectual virtue. As we have seen in Books 2 and 3, Aristotle has defined virtue as the relative mean in between excess and deficiency. The mean he prescribes as following the process of correct reasoning. In Book 5 Aristotle explores the meaning of correct reasoning. In his own words, “Recall that we said earlier that one must choose the mean and not the excess or the defect, and that the mean is what is prescribed by correct reasoning. It is this we should now make precise.”
To begin with his enquiry Aristotle wishes to divide the various parts of the intellect. Firstly, he separates the virtues of the soul, “We made a distinction among the virtues of the soul and said that some were virtues of character and others of the intellect.” Aristotle now wishes to address the part of reason, but before doing so he gives a preliminary observation about the soul, “It was said earlier that there are two parts of the soul, one that involves reason and one that involves the other non-rational. Let us assume that there are two parts that involve reason, one that enables us to contemplate the kind of things whose originating principles are incapable of variation, and another by which we contemplate the things that are variable. Let us call one of these the scientific faculty, and the other calculative faculty. We must, then, work out what is the best state of these two faculties, for that will be the virtue of each, and the virtue of a thing is relative to its proper task.”
So from the virtues of the soul Aristotle has given us character and intellect. Now from the intellectual virtue he wishes to address scientific faculty and calculative faculty – one being the study of things unalterable and the other being the study of things to be deliberated on.
Truth and Right Desire
Aristotle now investigates the devices which control people’s conduct and how they rationalise their experiences and, by extension, their existence, “There are three things in the soul that control conduct and truth: sensation, intellect, and desire.” Aristotle dismisses sensation as having any relation to virtuous conduct owing to the fact that brutes exercise sensation but do not seek to limit their behaviour by exercising virtuous restraint. One might add that the brute only exercises restraint when either his desire has been filled or he has expended himself – only to return later with desire and energy renewed. Instead Aristotle turns to the relationship between desire and intellect, “What affirmation and negation are in thinking, pursuit and avoidance are in desire: so that since a moral virtue is a state that finds expression in choice, and choice is deliberative desire, it follows that if the choice is to be good, both the reasoning must be true and the desire must be right, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts.” And furthermore, “Hence, there is no choice without intelligence and thought or without a moral state of character: for good conduct and its opposite cannot exist without both thought and character.”
Aristotle is once again referring to deliberative choice for the basis of all ethical action – if we recall from Book 2, “It is clear that purposive choice is deliberative appetition of things within one’s power.” What becomes clearer is Aristotle’s reluctance to enforce a universal ethical code. If we remember from Book 1, “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct.” Now add to that what he has just said in Book 5, “Hence, there is no choice without intelligence and thought or without a moral state of character.” The question we must now ask ourselves is whether Aristotle believes this moral state of character is inherent within one’s person or whether it is a trait which can be learnt and subsequently practised. From following the text I take the former opinion that moral character is inherent within the individual and cannot be installed by education. Please reconsider a repetition of the above passage with the sentiment highlighted in bold, “There are three things in the soul that control conduct and truth: sensation, intellect, and desire. What affirmation and negation are in thinking, pursuit and avoidance are in desire: so that since a moral virtue is a state that finds expression in choice, and choice is deliberative desire, it follows that if the choice is to be good, both the reasoning must be true and the desire must be right, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts.” So if the desire forms moral conduct and it exists within the soul how can it be installed? And if desire is what pursues reason then what incentive exists to exercise reason if the soul has no desire to do so?
Let us now continue with Aristotle’s inquiry into intelligence.
Aristotle adds two further points to intelligence. Firstly, “Hence choice is intelligence qualified by desire, or desire qualified by thought, and to be the originator of this is what it means to be human.” Secondly, “The task of both intellectual parts, then, is truth. It follows that the virtues of the two parts will be states that make them achieve the maximum of truth.” From the first quote it seems that Aristotle has a fairly concise view of what constitutes a human being, thus separating him from the thoughtless beast. I am uncertain whether the distinction is purely between homo sapien and other species or whether Aristotle views humans incapable of ‘desire qualified by thought’ to be beasts. Given Aristotle’s stance in his work, ‘The Politics’, I suspect it is the latter. Please consider from Politics Book 1, 1254b16-31, “Therefore whenever there is the same wide discrepancy between human beings as there is between soul and body or between man and beast, then those whose condition is such that their function is the use of their bodies and nothing better can be expected of them, those, I say, are slaves by nature. It is better for them, just as in the case mentioned, to be ruled thus. For the ‘slave by nature’ is he that can and therefore does not belong to another, and that he participates in reason so far as to recognise it but not so as to possess it. The use made of slaves hardly differs at all from that of tame animals: they both help with their bodies to supply our essential needs. It is, then, nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves, the latter strong enough to be used for necessary tasks, the former erect and useless for that kind of work, but well suited for the life of a citizen of the state, a life which in turn is divided between the requirements of war and peace.”
Common Sense in Ethics
But returning to the subject of intelligence, Aristotle is keen to suggest that those who possess intelligence exercise good judgement. “The gift that is called ‘sense’, in the way in which we speak of people being sensible and having common sense, is a matter of sound discrimination in the sphere of the equitable. An indication of this is that we say that an equitable judge is an especially sensitive person, and equity is a sensitive judgement in particular cases. Sensitivity is a discriminative sense that delivers correct verdicts about what is equitable, a correct verdict being one that delivers truth. All these dispositions, reasonably enough, converge on the same point: for when we speak of sense and judgement and wisdom and intelligence, we attribute the possession of sense and intelligence to the same people and regard them as having wisdom and judgement.” And yet, for me, this is not an exhaustive account of intelligence. I think this is a rather limited view both of sensitivity and intelligence. With these traits one could feasibly lead others astray, such as with confidence tricks or exploiting other people’s misery for use as a political platform, whereas without such traits the very opportunity would not be recognised – let alone realised. Aristotle seems to realise that intelligence alone does not grant moral conduct. He therefore enquires into the nature of cleverness, “There is a faculty that is called cleverness: it is the power to hit upon and perform the steps that lead to the goal we have set ourselves. If the goal is a noble one, then cleverness is laudable; if not, it is mere smartness: hence we call both wise and smart people clever. Wisdom is not the same as this faculty, but it does not exist without it. It is a kind of eye of the soul: as is evident and has already been said, it does not achieve its proper condition in the absence of virtue.” From this passage it suggests to me that Aristotle is creating a hierarchy of characteristics; at the apex lies intelligence with two contrasting sub-components – wisdom and smartness.
To further qualify please consider the following extract; “But the acquisition of intelligence makes a difference in conduct, and the characteristic will turn into the true virtue it previously only resembled. So that just as in the belief-forming part of the soul there are two types, cleverness and wisdom, so in the moral part there are two types, natural virtue and true virtue, and the latter cannot occur in the absence of wisdom.” The acquisition, or inheritance, of intelligence does not make one immediately noble; indeed it may never do so. It is only intelligence combined with moral character which grants birth to wisdom.
And finally, “That is why some people say that the virtues just are forms of wisdom, and why Socrates was partly right and partly wrong in his inquiries: he was wrong to think that all the virtues were nothing but forms of wisdom, but he was right to say that there are no virtues in the absence of wisdom. Evidence for this is the fact that even now everyone when defining virtue, after naming the state of character and its sphere, goes on to say ‘in accordance with correct reasoning’, and reasoning is correct if it is in accordance with wisdom… It is evident, then, from what has been said that it is not possible to be truly good without wisdom, nor wise without moral virtue.” I feel that this is the most important passage in regards to intellectual virtue. Aristotle is explaining that wisdom is a necessity of moral behaviour because it allows one to deliberate about what they ought to do in accordance with correct reasoning. And he is also saying that one needs to have moral virtue to exercise this wisdom or he will fall foul to smartness – which, I suspect, Aristotle would attribute such vices as deceit and manipulation which do not occur in his previous table of virtues expressed in Book 2.
Concepts Present in Book 5 Not Immediately Related to the Current Discourse
I found a number of quotes in this passage to be worthy of referencing which fall under two headings;
- Was Aristotle the First Recorded Environmentalist?
- The Nature of Knowledge
Please consider the following;
Was Aristotle the First Recorded Environmentalist?
“We say this because it would be odd to think that political science or wisdom is the most excellent form of knowledge, given that man is not the best of the inhabitants of the universe. What is healthy and good for human beings is not the same as what is healthy and good for fishes.”
“It is evident that philosophical understanding is not the same as political science; for if you call concern with what is beneficial to yourself philosophy, then there will be many different philosophies. There will not be a single one concerned with the good of all animals, but a different one for each.”
“Wisdom is concerned with conduct; so we need to have both forms of knowledge, universal and particular – the latter, perhaps, more than the former. And here, too, there will be a kind that has a supervisory role.”
The Nature of Knowledge
I find Aristotle’s insight into the nature of knowledge to be amongst the most illuminating passages in this chapter. Again, it is the conundrum that every serious philosopher must address – is there an absolute truth to be attained; or, put differently, what is the nature of our certainties? Can there exist an absolute truth?
“We all suppose that what we know is not capable of being otherwise; for when things are capable of being otherwise, we cannot tell whether they are the case or not once they pass from view. Whatever is known, therefore, is necessary. Therefore it is eternal, for things that are unqualifiedly necessary are all eternal, and what is eternal neither comes to be nor passes away.”
“A person knows something when he has a certain kind of belief and when he is aware of the principles that support it; for if they are not better known to him than the conclusion, then it is only coincidentally that he has knowledge.”
I think the last quote sums up the closest we can possibly get to realising absolute truth given the limits of our perception; that is – we assume correlation proves causation only when it conforms to an underlying principle providing it cannot be refuted with our current tools and systems.
Critique of Book 5
Let us start with the conclusion of this Book; one must exercise intelligence morally, that is – in accordance with correct reasoning, for it to be considered a virtue. This we call wisdom as it conforms with the relative mean in virtue when applied to a noble end. No choice would be right without both wisdom and virtue for virtue makes wisdom perform the acts which lead to a just end. Yet, what have we made of nobility in our Age of Pity? What worth will nobility retain in the successive Ages of both Mediocrity and Nihilism? If the will of the people is to remain docile and ignorant then why would this aversion to truth embrace honesty and thus nobility? Does our current desire for a more pleasurable existence actually cast scorn upon all noble ventures? For exploration, even of stars and systems, would be deemed a waste of resources that could otherwise improve the lives of those trapped in poverty? Or at the very least be extended towards modern medicine to extend our existences? For the sake of what? The simple act of consuming?
I find this to be the strongest case for Aristotle’s Ethics; it deplores mediocrity. And so is Man’s misery, or the relief thereof, now the goal which Humanity has set itself? What about everything else which must bow before this Homo Superior? All habitats and ecosystems, indeed all understanding and knowledge, which must be lost, shed or obliterated simply to sustain the Ego of Man? How does Humanity reconcile that injustice?
It will be observed that this is not actually a critique of Book 5. That is because I cannot find fault with what has been put forward. Intelligence, in and of itself, is not what causes ill or suffering, or increased wellbeing, it is the manner in which it is exercised which performs such acts. This is governed by the moral systems (may we say individual traits?) within each person. And thus only the wise can exercise moral virtue for they both deliberate upon intentions and will the outcome, otherwise it is just an accident where the result was acquired in the pursuit of something else. What I would add though is this, if wisdom is dependent upon moral character how can it be freely-willed by an agent who does not possess this characteristic? I suspect that in limiting morality to the wise Aristotle must abandon the notion that free-will exists. Whether he did or did not is not my place to say.