08 February 2007

Haven't a Clue

Here's a passage that I've looked at for years but the other day realized, "I don't have the slightest idea what it means." Fortunately, I'm in good company in thinking so.

The passage is from Aristotle's famous critique of a Platonic theory of the Good in NE I.6. In the midst of his critique (1096b5-8), he takes time out to mention and praise, in contrast, a Pythagorean view:

piqanw&teron d' e0oi/kasin oi9 Puqago&reioi le/gein (5) peri\ au)tou~, tiqe/ntej e0n th|~ tw~n a)gaqw~n sustoixi/a| to_ e3n: oi[j dh_ kai\ Speu&sippoj e0pakolouqh~sai dokei=. a)lla_ peri\ me\n tou&twn a1lloj e1stw lo&goj:

Rowe and Broadie translate:
The Pythagoreans seem to have something more persuasive to say about the matter, when they place the One in the column of goods; and apparently Speusippus followed their lead. But let us leave these people for another occasion.
You may see the passage in its context here. ("these people"? Apparently because of the change from singular to plural. Yet the plural is idiomatic; only the singular should be given special treatment, viz. "something more persuasive to say about it".)

Now Rowe and Broadie are also at a loss to explain the passage. Here is their note:
The followers of Pythagoras (6th-century BCE mathematician, philosopher, and ascetic) based their metaphysics on pairs of contraries forming two columns:

Limit Unlimited
Odd Even
One Many, etc. (Metaph. I.5, 986a22-6)

Ar. refers to the left-hand one as 'the column of goods' even though Good itself appears as an item in it lower down. His comparison with Platonism presumably has to do with the relations in each theory between Good and One. Plato, Ar. tells us, identified them (Metaph. XIV.4, 1091b13-15), whereas the Pythagoreans distinguished them. We can only guess why Aristotle prefers the Pythagorean theory to Plato's.
Rackham cites an article by Burnet (in Classical Review , vol. 3, p. 198; see JSTOR), who does make a guess. For Burnet, Aristotle is asserting: 'It is more plausible to say that the One is good than that the Good is one.' (?) But the text so understood is out of place, he thinks; it would be 'simpler' if it were placed after 1096a, 34, gumnastikh/ :
Perhaps the present position of the sentence is due to the 'editor' having supposed that there was some reference to the view of Speusippus and the Pythagoreans that the Good was not eternal, for which Met. 1072b, 30 and 1091 a, 34. But it seems hard to find such a reference in the sentence as we have it.
Does this clarify things for you? It doesn't for me. And why move the text if it doesn't really clear things up?


Eric Brown said...

I agree that the passage is puzzling. How does the Pythagorean belief that the One is a good provides a more plausible account of the puzzle assayed at 1096a34-1096b5, concerning what difference 'itself' makes when the Platonist refers to the F itself as opposed to Fs?

You do not mention Susemihl's solution. According to Burnet's note that you cite (CR 3 [1889]: 198), Susemihl would simply bracket 1096a34-1096b5 as a marginal insertion. This makes the point clear, since the Pythagorean belief that the One is a good can more plausibly accommodate Aristotle's preceding claim (at 1096a29-34) that there seem to be multiple sciences of goods than the Platonic belief that the Good is the One can. (Since the Pythagorean does not say that the Good is uniform, his belief does not entail that there must be one science of all goods, as the Platonic belief does.)

Burnet appears to reject Susemihl's solution, presumably because it involves radical textual surgery.

I don't get Burnet's alternative. He asks if it would not be easier to move "1096b, 5 sqq" so that it follows gumnastike in 1096a34. But how much text is he proposing to move? Aristotle ends his reference to the Pythagoreans by setting them aside in a men clause that is immediately picked up by the de clause of the next point, which is quite distinct and which takes Aristotle many lines to discuss (1096b8-31, on my reckoning). Surely this is radical textual surgery, as well, no?

Perhaps, then, we should take the introduction of Aristotle's point about the Pythagoreans a little more loosely. He says that they say something more plausible "about this," and it is natural to take 'this' to refer to the immediately preceding puzzle about what 'itself' adds. But perhaps Aristotle's reference is not so tidy as that. Perhaps he just means that the Pythagoreans say something more plausible about this whole subject that is under discussion, namely, the Platonic claim about the Good itself. If we allow him the looser relevance, then he can be saying just what Burnet and Susemihl take him to say, that the Pythagorean claim that the One is a good is more plausible than the Platonic claim that the Good is the One because the Pythagorean claim does not insist that there is only one kind of goodness and one science of goodness and so on, to be explained in terms of isolating the Good itself.

So understood, Aristotle's parenthetical remark about the Pythagoreans is not ideally introduced or ideally placed, but it is not deeply problematic, either.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Eric,

I suppose Burnet would say that the text up until dokei should be moved. Then peri toutwn at 1096b7-8 changes its reference and points back to 1096b5 and what comes before. But that's okay (he could say) because the plural shows that a wider range of problems is being put aside than whatever was raised in the comment about the Pythagoreans and Speusippus.

Suppose we ask what the argumentative role of that obscure passage should be. Aristotle is arguing against the view that good is uniform. He has just given a very nice argument that, on the assumption that it is, then one cannot explain why The Good Itself is better than any particular good (as it must be, if that is the ultimate good, as he is taking the Platonists to be holding). Why? Because since good is uniform, The Good Itself has to be good in just the same way as any particular good. And its simply lasting longer won't itself make it better.

A possible reply would be: "But the unity of The Good Itself makes it better. The Good Itself contains in a single Form the goodness that is scattered and not united in particular things."

Could that be the view that Aristotle thinks is in the spirit of the Pythagoreans?

In any case, it leads directly to a retort, which presumably would be implicit: "But to say that is to hold that unity is a good-making characteristic. But unity is obviously not uniform. It's clear that there are many senses of the word 'one'. And thus, as a consequence, there would be many senses of the word 'good'."

A possible trouble with this interpretation is that it does not seem to comport with what else is thought about Speusippus. Wouldn't he want to say that The Good Itself, as a principle, isn't good at all?