25 January 2008

The Solution to the Well-Defined Problem

My advice for how to interpret that difficult passage in Nic. Eth. II.6? Simply continue reading beyond the passage-- since then it becomes clear, I think, that the words which I place in brackets below are not meant to be part of the definition at all, but rather a comment upon the definition:

Ἔστιν ἄρα ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς [ὡρισμένη λόγῳ καὶ ὡς ἂν φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν].
If we bracket those words for the moment, then the definition of virtue given here (which is said, btw, to state the genos only, at 1114b27), is of a trait (ἕξις) which disposes someone to choose in a certain way (προαιρετική), and which is intermediate (ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα) as between two other states, in a manner relative to us (τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς). As Taylor points out in his commentary, that and precisely that is what Aristotle had established in his discussion which precedes the definition.

But what is the reason for the bracketed words? They comment upon the definition, and Aristotle gives the sense of that comment in the lines that immediately follow.

First Aristotle clarifies his definition with a couple of glosses:
μεσότης δὲ δύο κακιῶν, τῆς μὲν καθ' ὑπερβολὴν τῆς δὲ κατ' ἔλλειψιν· καὶ ἔτι τῷ τὰς μὲν ἐλλείπειν τὰς δ' ὑπερβάλλειν τοῦ δέοντος ἔν τε τοῖς πάθεσι καὶ ἐν ταῖς πράξεσι, τὴν δ' ἀρετὴν τὸ μέσον καὶ εὑρίσκειν καὶ αἱρεῖσθαι.

It is a trait intermediate between two vices one of which is so by excess and the other by defect. And they are so because they either fall short of or exceed what they should, in emotions or in actions, whereas virtue identifies and chooses the intermediate mark.
The sentence which next follows is, I think, a gloss as well on the bracketed words:
That is why, with respect to its nature and the definition that states its essence, virtue is an intermediate trait, whereas with respect to what is best and what is excellent, it is a high point.
The reason for this last gloss is that Aristotle is perfectly well aware that, to anyone who has actually striven to be virtuous, it will seem strange and even paradoxical to say that virtue is something intermediate. Rather, from the point of view of someone striving to be good (κατὰ δὲ τὸ ἄριστον καὶ τὸ εὖ), virtue looks like a nearly unattainable pinnacle. (Think, e.g. of the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded it is said to "the bravest of the brave", for those who distinguish themselves "…conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty...". Nothing intermediate about that! And there are lots of other examples.)

So Aristotle thinks that he has to defend his definition. He therefore says that, in fact, as regards the nature of a virtue, and considering it formally (i.e. with a view to its logos), each virtue, it turns out, falls between two opposing vices. Someone immersed in the task of trying to act well might not notice this; yet this will be how a discerning person will define it.

And this is exactly what he had said in the bracketed words, and so the text should be translated:
Virtue is a trait (ἕξις) which disposes someone to choose in a certain way (προαιρετική), and which is intermediate (ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα) as between two other states, in a manner relative to us (τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς)-- that is, when virtue is marked out by its formal definition (ὡρισμένη λόγῳ ), and in the way that a person with insight into practical matters would mark it out (ὡς ἂν φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν).
This explains perfectly the reading of the codices -- the key is to see that the problematic words are not in the definition but about the definition--

-- and it also shows why all of those dozens of articles on the passage should quietly be pushed aside and forgotten.

24 January 2008

More on the Problem

Here's a telling remark by Taylor on the passage I quoted yesterday. You can find within it the germ of the solution I'd wish to propose.

Aristotle has so far said nothing whatever on how the ethical mean is determined. Hence, despite the 'then' [ἄρα] which introduces the definition, the definition is not derived as a whole from the previous discussion. All that that discussion has established is that the mean in feelings and actions is feeling and acting to the right extent, neither too much nor too little. The questions 'What counts as too much or too little?' and 'How does one recognize what is too much and too little?' have not been raised.
I agree with that almost entirely. What I don't agree with is what Taylor next says:
He now asserts that the mean state is determined by reason: namely, the reason by which the person of practical wisdom would determine it. For elucidation we must now turn to VI.I, 1138b18-34, where he returns to this question.
To my mind an interpretation of a passage Aristotle is likely not to be correct if for elucidation one absolutely must turn to another book far away.

(Burnet once wrote that he was untroubled by this difficulty because "the theory of logos or orthos logos belongs to the Academy (koinon kai hupokeisthw 1103b 32) and was, of course, familiar to Aristotle's audience" ("On the Meaning of Logos in Aristotle's Ethics", Classical Review 1914). Yet to me this consideration has little weight because Aristotle is developing his theory of virtue as positioned between two vices in opposition to received views. Note in any case that Burnet implicitly agrees that some special proviso needs to be in place to justify interpreting in this way.)

But that's all I can say today... Apologies to Mokawi!

23 January 2008

A Well-Defined Problem

One of the most familiar, and most perplexing, passages in the Nicomachean Ethics is apparently a 'definition' of virtue offered in II.6. Here is how Chris Taylor renders it in his recent Clarendon Aristotle volume:

Virtue, then, is a state concerned with choice, in a mean in relation to us, a mean determined by reason, namely the reason by which the person of practical wisdom would determine it (1106b36-1107a2).

Ἔστιν ἄρα ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ἂν φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν.
I've probably read two dozen articles or commentaries on this passage, and maybe you have also. But I've been wondering 0f late whether they aren't all completely misguided. (I'll explain what I mean in a later post.)

Recently I was talking with a scholar who was dismayed with Taylor's treatment of the passage. The Greek given above is Bywater's OCT; but this departs in two places from the codices, which have, rather:
Ἔστιν ἄρα ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένη λόγῳ καὶ ὡς ἂν φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν.
Taylor in his commentary does not even mention the possibility of an alternate reading, and yet this seems important as regards what gets 'determined' and how. As Alfonso Gόmez-Lobo explains in one of the more excellent articles on the subject ("Aristotle's Right Reason"):
If we take the reading of the manuscripts (ὡρισμένη) it would be the state (hexis) that is thus determined. If, alternatively, we read the dative with the putative manuscript of William of Moerbeke and with the commentators Aspasius and Alexander, it is rather the middle state (mesotēs ) that is delimited by reason.
Gόmez-Lobo goes on to say (as I entirely agree):
Both alternatives are unsatisfactory because Aristotle's explanations in the remainder of the chapter show rather clearly that the mesotēs character of the hexis and, hence, the hexis itself, are a consequence of the habitual choice of the meson. ... Aristotle's settled view is doubtless that it is the latter term, i.e., the object of our choice of the intermediate relative to us, that is determined by logos.
That is, what logos apparently determines (according to all other relevant passages in books III-IV) is the contour of a particular action, not the habitual state which is the virtue, whether that virtue is regarded simply as an habitual state (hexis) or as an intermediate such state (mesotēs).

But I think I've found a nifty and simple way out of this mess-- which I'll tell you about later.

22 January 2008

Bobby Fischer: God or Beast?

I thought of Aristotle's famous remark:

δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν μηδὲν δεόμενος δι' αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε θηρίον θεός.
"Anyone who cannot belong to a community, or has no need to do so in view of his self-sufficiency, is not part of political society. One can only conclude that he is a beast -- or a god."
--when I read a stunningly good reflection today in the WSJ on Bobby Fischer, "Victim of his own Success" by Brian Carney.

We perhaps take Aristotle's saying to apply only to our embeddedness political society. But note that δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν seems in the first instance general, and one's occupying a role in political society is presented as a consequence of this.

Now one finds that Aristotle's maxim is confirmed exactly in the life of Bobby Fischer. He was not δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν because he "had no equal" (precisely because, curiously, he did not lose) and could not tolerate the possibility that he could have an equal (so that he later would not allow himself to lose, and gave up chess).

He began his public career perhaps as a self-sufficient 'god' of chess, who held himself aloof from society from others by choice, but as a consequence he had removed himself from the polis, and accordingly he became just as much a 'beast'.

His belief in himself at the chess board and his suspicion of others away from it may have been related. Mig Greengard, a chess columnist, recounted to me what he called his favorite Bobby Fischer quote. In 1960, in a tournament in Buenos Aires in which he uncharacteristically finished 13th, Fischer was emerging from the tournament hall after a win. One of the assembled admirers offered him a standard compliment: "Great game, Bobby." Fischer snapped back, "How would you know?"

In Fischer's view, there was almost no one in the world, besides him, who understood what he was doing at the chess board. Few people were even competent to compliment him, never mind offer criticism. But if he felt that way about the area of endeavor to which he devoted his life, it's not hard to see how he could blunder into feeling that way about most everything else.

The French philosopher Alexander Kojeve once wrote that the only defense against madness is the accord of your peers. That is, if you can convince no one that your beliefs are well-founded, then it's probably you who are crazy, and not the herd. Fischer's problem was that he had no peers, at least not in chess, so he had no one to check his worst tendencies. The world championship he won in 1972 validated his view of himself as a chess player, but it also insulated him from the humanizing influences of the world around him. He descended into what can only be considered a kind of madness.

Carney's analysis is much superior to that of Gary Kasparov (also in the WSJ) who it seems here thinks primarily of skill and talent, not relationship to persons.

15 January 2008

A.A. Long at Yale

The Yale Working Group in Ancient Philosophy presents

Rationality in Greek Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics

a seminar led by

A. A. Long (University of California, Berkeley).

Sponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center.

Session #1: "Heraclitus on measure and the explicit emergence of rationality"
Friday 18 January 4:00-6:00pm, LC 317
Group dinner to follow.

Session #2: "Cosmic craftsmanship in Plato and Stoicism"
Saturday 19 January 12:00-2:00pm, LC 317
Lunch provided.

Session #3: "Eudaimonism, divinity, and rationality in Greek ethics"
Saturday 19 January 4:00-6:00pm, LC 317
Group dinner to follow.

For further information, please contact tim.clarke@yale.edu.

14 January 2008

Quiz for the Day

This interested me, so I did the searches. For you, it can be a quiz.

  1. Which treatise by Aristotle is cited most frequently in the corpus of Thomas Aquinas?
  2. Rank the following treatises according to frequency with which each is cited by Thomas Aquinas, from most frequently to least so: De Anima, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics.
  3. Of the particular books within the treatises by Aristotle, which is the most frequently cited in the corpus of Thomas Aquinas?
  4. Of the books of the Metaphysics, which is the most frequently cited?
  5. Of the books of the Physics, which is the most frequently cited?
  6. Of the books of the Nicomachean Ethics, which is the most frequently cited?
Answers below.

I was interested in this to see whether I could confirm my sense that, of the treatises of Aristotle, Aquinas draws most frequently upon the Nicomachean Ethics.

I'm happy to send the spreadsheet with complete figures by request, broken down by search terms for each book and treatise. Simply write to me.

1. Nicomachean Ethics, by a longshot.

2. Nicomachean Ethics, 1689 citations; Physics, 777; De Anima, 756; Metaphysics, 466.

3. De Anima III, 506 citations.

4. Book V, 83 citations; followed by Book X, 68 citations; and Book XII, 38 citations.

5. Book VIII, 166 citations; followed by Book II, 157 citations; and Book III, 98 citations.

6. Book II, 253 citations; followed by Book III, 236 citations; and Book VI, 229 citations.

11 January 2008

Not Esprit d'Escalier for a Blog

For a blog, it's a missed afterthought only if it's at least two days later...

To follow up to my post yesterday about the origin of the Septuagint, I wanted to offer some comments on the review of Wasserstein and Wasserstein, by Shawn W. J. Keough of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which I mentioned. This review puzzled me, and I found it generally uninformative. As I said, I had become interested in the question of the origin of the Septuagint, and by coincidence this review showed up in my mailbox. Yet it helped me very little. To wit, Keough at one point writes the following:

Three writers figure in the development of the legend among Hellenistic Jews: Aristobulus, Philo and Josephus. The sketchy evidence from Aristobulus is useful to W&W only insofar as it establishes the relative priority of Ps. Aristeas (32). The evidence of Philo and Josephus, however, demonstrates the way the legend was molded and deployed to address the needs of new contexts. Philo wishes to extend the general sense of approval and admiration for the translation found in the Letter to a profound sense of divine inspiration, so that Jewish religion and scripture take on a new universal scope and relevance (38-39). W&W are careful to note that Philo's account of the legend does not, however, include certain miraculous elements often ascribed to it: Philo does not say "that the translators were deliberately separated, that they were all given the same texts to translate, and that they all produced literally identical versions" (44). Rather, W&W understand Philo to make the more modest claim that the translators all used the same correct words in the same contexts of translation (45).
Yet I think a reviewer should choose a more precise phrase than "relative priority" . The Letter was doubtless prior in time, but was it the sole source for those other authors? Keough's talk of "the legend being molded for new contexts" might suggest that it is. But the Letter was not the only tradition or source of information available to Philo, who describes, for instance, in his Life of Moses a yearly celebration involving multitudes of different peoples (παμπληθεῖς ἕτεροι) which continued at least up to his own time (μέχρι νῦν) in the place where the translation is said to have been accomplished (the island of Pharos). It's unlikely that there could be such a celebration without those participating passing down an account of how the translation was accomplished, and yet we may safely presume that no mere letter would have given rise to such a celebration.

Here's another fudge in the review. The reviewer uses the phrase, "W&W are careful to note", which suggests that the reviewer agrees with the judgment that follows, viz. Philo's account of the legend does not... include certain miraculous elements often ascribed to it. And this is an obvious truth, because there are details of later accounts not found in Philo.

But then the reviewer adds that "Rather, W&W understand Philo to make the more modest claim that the translators all used the same correct words in the same contexts of translation", and this is stated uncritically, as if the reviewer agrees with this judgment as well.

Yet what does this mean? What does it mean to say that "the translators all used the same correct words in the same contexts"? Does this mean that the translators conferred and came to an agreement about how to translate? That would hardly be worth mentioning, since any group translation must proceed in that way. But if it means that (according to Philo) the translators independently came up with translations that later were found to coincide and to be unimpeachable -- then this would hardly be less miraculous than what is reported in later stories. (Clearly, whether the translators were actually put in separate cells, as later accounts have it, makes little difference.)

In fact Philo's language suggests he believed there was a miraculous concurrence. I'll paste the relevant passage from the Life of Moses below and then give Thackeray's conservative translation. (By the way, note "they say" below, which suggests Philo's reliance on a tradition distinct from the Letter.)
καθάπερ ἐνθουσιῶντες προεφήτευον οὐκ ἄλλα
ἄλλοτε ἄλλας ἐφαρμόζοντα λέξεις; ὅπερ ἐπὶ ταύτης τῆς νομοθεσίας οὔ
φασι συμβῆναι, συνενεχθῆναι δ' εἰς ταὐτὸν κύρια κυρίοις ὀνόμασι, τὰ
... as men possessed, they produced not divers interpretations, but all alike used the same words and phrases, as though some invisible prompter whispered in the ears of each. And yet who does not know that every language, and Greek beyond all others, is rich in words and that one may be circumlocution and paraphrase clothe the same thought in divers forms, varying the style to fit the occasion? Yet this, they say, did not happen with these laws of ours; no, the appropriate technical words corresponded exactly with the technical words in the original, the Greek with the Chaldee, being admirably adapted to fit the subject-matter.

Now, here's a question that interests me also. I wonder if Keough, or Wasserstein, or Wasserstein, think that it's in principle even possible that a translation be inspired -- since it seems to me that this might make a difference in how one evaluates the historical evidence. At least, it would be interesting for an historian to offer a disjunctive judgment-- "If one assumes that it is not possible that the translators were miraculously inspired, then one would reasonably arrive at the following account of the origin of the legend ... ; but if one assumes that it is in principle possible, then one might think rather something like the following...".

10 January 2008

E-Scholarship Today

Here's a chance story about how technology assists learning today.

Last week, I became interested in the question of the origin of the Septuagint. The first step in thinking about this: actually to purchase a Septuagint Bible (I've had an electronic version on my hard drive for a while). So I go to Abebooks, purchase a book for a very reasonable sum, and four days later the beautiful 1500 page Zondervan edition arrives in my mailbox in perfect condition.

At the same time I ordered Thackeray's edition of the Letter of Aristeas through Amazon Prime, which arrived yesterday.

When I read Thackeray and had questions about Philo's Greek, this was easy to find through search. The Letter of Aristeas, I discovered, is also online in Greek in the "Christian Classics Ethereal Library".

And then yesterday in my e-mail there arrives: from The Medieval Review, a review of Wasserstein and Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (CUP 2006), which clarifies for me the state of the question. (The review seems not to have been posted yet on the Medieval Review's website.)

Now I didn't have to walk more than 20 feet away from my desk at any point in all this. And the time I spent in acquiring resources -- about five minutes.