01 November 2006

Broadie on Flourishing

Sarah Broadie's contribution to the Kraut volume ("Aristotle and Contemporary Ethics"), is, I think, an illuminating investigation of some differences between Aristotle's approach to ethics and dominant views among contemporary moral philosophers (sc. in broadly 'analytic' departments).

To my mind it ranks with Kraut's essay, which I have already praised, and Malcolm Schofield's "Aristotle's Political Ethics", as one of the truly fine contributions to the volume. (Anthony Price's piece on akrasia deserves special mention also.)

Unfortunately, Broadie phrases her question: What are the "parts of our Aristotelian legacy that we can wholeheartedly continue to endorse"? That's not a coherent question, because "we" lack unanimity on fundamental questions of ethics and philosophy.

Moreover, to use "we" in this way risks begging questions and--I am confident Broadie does not intend this--imposing a kind of intellectual rule by numbers. Perhaps in a later post I'll extract passages in which Broadie indicates what "we" can or cannot continue to accept, to show how such claims are indeed quite controversial, but mask the controversy.

Today, however, I wish simply to draw attention to the first "part of our Aristotelian legacy" that Broadie thinks "we" can largely continue to endorse, viz. eudaimonia as "flourishing".

I'll quote the passage in full below. Two things about it strike me as odd. First, Broadie writes as though "the concept of flourishing" is Aristotle's idea, whereas that is indicated by an English word, and what is at issue is whether "flourishing" signifies, or can signify, what Aristotle meant by eudaimonia. When you read Broadie's description of "the concept of flourishing," in this confessedly very beautifully written passage, you might find yourself wondering whether it isn't expressing an idea from Broadie, not Aristotle. Isn't the tone and outlook of NE, but for a chapter or two in book I, perhaps, very different?

Second, Broadie writes as if "we" can indeed continue to endorse Aristotle's notion of "flourishing", even as she draws attention to several disanalogies between our notion of "flourishing" and his of eudaimonia. But on what grounds do we say that these disanalogies are not crucial? One might wonder: Is the "concept of flourishing" a "seed" taken from Aristotle, as Broadie calls it, or something more like the husk?

Here is the passage:

Let us begin with a possession which it seems can hardly grow old: the great Aristotelian idea of human flourishing, or simply flourishing for short, since here we are setting aside the biological flourishing of plants and non-rational animals. To speak of flourishing in the human context is to speak, of course, of eudaimonia. Yet it would be a mistake to propose "flourishing" as the preferred translation for eudaimonia in general. The world excellently captures the narrower idea of human eudaimonia, but -- as Aristotle does not allow us to forget -- eudaimonia was ascribed to the gods as well as to the best and most successful humans. The idea that gods and (some) human beings are alike subjects of eudaimonia is probably not an assumption we today require in order to reach ethical conclusions, even of an Aristotelian sort. But we have to allow to Aristotle this assumption, since on it rests his final argument in the Nicomachean Ethics identifying the most perfect form of human flourishing.

Now, it cannot be correct to speak of god or the gods as "flourishing." Why not? For exactly the reason why that word works so well for specifically human eudaimonia: what flourishes is what grows and dies and depends on an environment and can come to grief; all of which is true of humans. One does not need to believe in any god to feel the force of Aristotle's contrast, never far from the surface, between divine eudaimonia and the human kind which is the subject of the NE: in other words, to be constantly in mind of the universal human limitations and vulnerabilities, as well as potentialities. "Flourishing" alludes to all that. We are rational beings: but mortal, implanted in an environment, at its mercy through our bodies, born in thrall to the sensations and instinctual emotions necessary for bare survival, requiring constant care and replenishment, utterly dependent for our development on somewhat more mature versions of ourselves--that is, on beings with, at best, many of the same infirmities, and wielding no more than human capacities of understanding and protection. These conditions, and the resulting needs, longings, general patters of relationship and authority, constitute the context for realizing any eudaimonia that might be open to humankind. Thus the concept of flourishing points both toward our highest aspirations and toward the mortal life-form in terms of which any of our aspirations are to be achieved.

So we have from Aristotle the seed--and more than just a seed--of a truly sound and fruitful approach to the question of human well-being ... (p. 342).