02 May 2005

Veatch's Impiety

The view that Aristotle in NE held that actions of the moral virtues are 'reasonable' and in that respect similar to philosophical contemplation is an old one, as I said the other day in a comment. For my part, I don't doubt that it's true; I merely don't find it clear.

I cited Veatch's Rational Man as a well-known text in a previous generation that puts forward that view. So I went back to Veatch, to see what exactly he said, and found this remarkable passage, in which he insists that we should take theoretical reason to be secondary to practical!

Aristotle leaves no doubt that he means to distinguish and exalt ...a life of contemplation and thought as against a life devoted merely to bringing one's thought and one's intelligence to bear on one's actions....
If this was Aristotle's position, then we have no alternative but to 'lay hands on our father' Aristotle and to come out in flat disagreement with him on this particular matter. The basis of our disagreement is simply our unshakable conviction that living is not for the sake of knowing, but rather that it is toward intelligent living that all of our powers and capacities are ultimately directed, including our powers of knowledge, and that it is the man himself who counts for more than all his knowledge, no matter how great the latter may be. In short, knowledge for its own sake can never be the be-all and end-all of human existence, nor can the chief good of man ever consist in the mere possession or even the exercise of knowledge. Not in the exercise of knowledge as such, but in its use in the practical living of our lives under the guidance of such knowledge and understanding as we possess must our characteristic perfection of human beings be thought to consist.
The lesson I draw from the passage: once one takes both sorts of reasoning, theoretical and practical, to be similar or analogous, then one needs a criterion to place one before the other. And then it seems that: for Aristotle, the eudaimonia of God, and God's being the principle of goodness for the entire universe, serves as that criterion.


David said...

Since Aristotle never reifies the good in this way how can we attribute that thought to him?

Thornton said...

I second MP contra David, and cite EN VI.7: "for it would be absurd to regard politics or prudence as the best [disposition], if man is not the best of beings in the universe....And if one were to say that man is the best of the animals, this too would make no difference; for there are also other things much more divine in the nature than man, like the most visible objects of which the universe is composed (Apostle trans.--approximately 1141a20-22, a35-41b2).

I don't know if this reifies the good, but it certainly makes sophia higher than phronesis by the criteria that MP identifies, viz. the object of the intellect.

David said...

I spoke poorly. I was referring to MP's claim that the Unmoved Mover is the principle of goodness for the entire universe. My apologies for any confusion.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the flourishing of eternal, disembodied, divine beings is going to be of much help here. Ignotus per ignotius. Larry Jost and others have helped us see how vacuous Aristotle's account of divine flourishing really is. And perhaps must be.
Suppose I had sat down with Veatch and said, "Look, I've decided to center my life on trying to come to a theoretical understanding of Justice and Beauty and Truth and the other eternal verities. Furthermore, I'm conducting the rest of my life as above all an artful attempt to realize or express in concrete terms the visions that I obtain of the Things in themselves. My practical life is not just analogous or similar in some formal respects to my theoretical pursuits. It is in the strongest sense for the sake of expressing or "approximating" those theoretical ideals."
What kind of reply could Veatch make to this picture of flourishing ? Is there something obviously defective or deficient about it?
Granted Aristotle, or whomever pasted the NE together, does say anything like this. But we have an important Aristotelian aporia and I think the texts fail us. So what should say for Aristotle? Can we imagine a flourishing life centered on theoria that is also strongly connected to civic virtue, for example, as an attempt to create a just state in this world?