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.


Eric Brown said...

Nice. That seems right.

Mokawi said...

Very nice way to deal with the bracketed part. Suddenly, it's a lot less weird.

Michael Pakaluk said...

The following difficulties were sent by a friend. I'll reply later.

"(1) Your parenthetical reference to 1114b27 suggests you think the definition in II.6 only states the genos of virtue. This is problematic. At the end of II.5 Aristotle claims to have stated what virtue is in respect of its genos, namely that it is a hexis. Then, at the beginning of II.6, he claims that this isn’t enough: we also, he insists, need to say what sort of hexis virtue is, and he then proceeds to discuss the Milo example, etc. Then, notably, shortly after the definition in II.6, he claims that the definition provides virtue’s substance (ousia), i.e. (epexegetic kai) the account that states the essence (ton logon ton to ti ên einai legonta) (1107a6-7). He certainly seems to think he has given a definition that supplies the essence, not merely the genos.

"(2) I don’t agree that ‘what counts as too much or too little?’ has not been raised (as you claim in the previous post). That seems to me to be the force of the Milo example. When read as Lesley Brown wisely guides us to read it, i.e. that it is the trainer who aims at the mean, not Milo, we can see that there has already been a tacit reference to the phronimos: just as how much Milo should eat would be determined by the trainer who follows right reason, so too what is intermediate for us (as human beings) is determined by the moral expert (sc. the phronimos) who follows right reason. But, on your account, the phronimos determines the definition of virtue, not anything about what is intermediate.

"(3) In fact, the account of virtue that is given at 1114b26ff is prima facie problematic for you, since Aristotle there claims that part of the account he has already provided is that virtue is ‘as right reason states’ (29-30). But, on your account of the definition, he hasn’t mentioned this at all, since you take the ROT’s ‘this being determined by reason’ to mean: ‘when virtue is marked out by its formal definition’."

John Médaille said...

This is a very interesting discussion. My Greek is not sufficient to enter the discussion at the linguistic level. However, I would like to ask if the "mean" is a an accidental or essential part of virtue.

This question became important for me in examining St. Thomas's definition of Faith as a "mean" between knowledge and opinion (ST II-II, 1, 2). But this seems all wrong to me; knowledge and opinion are not extremes (and certainly not vices) and faith is not their mean. Further, this places faith in a kind of opposition to knowledge, since faith must diminish as knowledge increases. Therefore, faith is not one of the three things that last.

One way out of this is to simply state that Aquinas applied to a theological virtue a definition which is applicable only to the natural virtues. (Oddly enough, Thomas doesn't use these same technique of the mean with hope and charity). However, I am not convinced that it even applies to all of the natural virtues, or even to any of them save prudence.

To take courage as an example, it is not a mean between anything, except accidentally. Sometimes it will manifest as great recklessness, others as great timidity. Sometimes the way out is through the enemy's machine-gun nest; sometimes it is by a precipitous retreat. Both can require courage; neither is necessarily a mean.

Michael Pakaluk said...

My replies to the three difficulties sent by a friend.

A couple of general points. First, I don’t claim that interpretations of the passage offered in the past are impossible; I claim simply that my alternative is more elegant, makes sense of everything, and 'clicks'.

If what I have proposed is correct, then the earlier interpretations of the bracketed words should be put aside, then, on the precise grounds that they are based on a complete misunderstanding of what those words are meant to say. --A misunderstanding is not a less preferable interpretation.

(By the way, this is not to say that other texts in NE, apart from the 'definition', aren’t relevant for figuring out the role of reason or phronēsis in moral virtues.)

Second, of course orthos logos gets mentioned before the definition, and I overstated the point if I suggested that this was not so. However, I would count the definition’s reference to virtue as an ‘intermediate trait’ (mesotēs) as sufficiently capturing this, i.e. insofar as virtue is being defined as a trait and not with respect to particular actions.

Some specific points.

1. My mention of genos was in reply to an anticipated objection. Someone might have said that if the bracketed bits are interpreted as being about the definition, rather than within it, this would make the definition too general, and perhaps, then, not serviceable as definition at all. I simply wanted to point out that later Aristotle, when he restates just these elements of this 'general' definition, calls it a definition of a genos, suggests that it needs greater determination, and then proceeds to do so through an examination of the particular virtues. (The two uses of genos wouldn't be inconsistent, because that is a relative term.)

2. As regards the use of the term phronimos, note that it costs Aristotle much labor in book VI to get clear about what this term means. One might wonder, then, whether he thought himself in a position to employ it in a somewhat technical sense ('a man who possesses the virtues of practical reason of phronesis') in book II. On the other hand, in its only other occurrence before book VI (I.5.1095b28), it is used in a non-technical sense ('someone with good insight into character and virtue').

3. See my point above about my appearing to overstate something. As regards 1114b27-30: note that there orthos logos is assigned a role only in relation to actions, not traits of character (consistent with Gomez-Lobo's observation about that it is said to 'state' or 'order' or 'dictate' the meson of an action, not the mesotes which is a virtue). So that later passage is actually consistent with my interpretation of the II.6 definition and tends to support it, rather that count against it.

(Something else that might be mentioned is Aristotle’s consistent use elsewhere of terms such as legei and keleuei for the activity of logos or orthos logos. That it play a role of defining the mean seems not to be acknowledged elsewhere. Admittedly ‘determine’ may in English be used in the sense of ‘discover’—but I take it that that is not the natural or obvious sense in the II.6 definition.)

Michael Pakaluk said...


The claim in the sed contra to II-II, 1,2, that faith is 'intermediate' between knowledge and belief, should be understood in the sense that faith is a complex disposition which has aspects of both belief and knowledge. Aquinas is not suggesting there that the extremes are vices or that one should try to acquire the intermediate condition only.


Anonymous said...

All this huffing and puffing about the existing translation being a ‘complete misreading’ and the demand that ‘dozens of articles should be quietly pushed aside’ seems rather overblown. If the lines shouldn’t be bracketed, *your* reading is a ‘complete misreading’ of the text. Better to weigh up the merits of the different readings and take it from there. You seem to assume that we either fail to take on board Gόmez-Lobo’s point about it being the intermediate that is determined by reason, not the mean state, or we adopt your reading. But it is open for someone to try to take on board Gόmez-Lobo’s point without bracketing part of the definition in the way you suggest. Perhaps, for example, the reference to the mean state could be elliptical for ‘mean state that aims at the intermediate’ (Aristotle had just explicitly emphasised that virtue is a mean because it aims at the intermediate (1106b27-28)), in which case what reason determines might refer to the intermediate after all. Or, alternatively, perhaps we *can* say that means are determined by reason, but in a way that is consistent with Gόmez-Lobo’s point. Actions determine states (1103b29-31), as well as states determining actions, so if we are talking about the genesis of the mean state, the state will be determined by reason in the sense that the actions that brought it about aimed at the intermediate (where what was intermediate was determined by the orthos logos) (incidentally, in II.2, the reference to right reason comes up just after the point has been made that it is actions that determine states). My claim is not that either of these options will ultimately hold up. It is the more modest one: we might be able to find a way of dealing with Gόmez-Lobo’s point without bracketing the lines in the way you suggest. That avenue has been completely ignored. (By the way, phronesis is used in a way that specifically refers to the intellectual virtue before the definition (at 1103a6), so phronimos in the definition could easily be being used in the technical sense as well.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear (latest) Anonymous,

The chief considerations in favor of the interpretation I propose are that (i) it's consistent with the glosses Aristotle gives after the definition; (ii) there is no straining against the reading of the codices.

To me, the interpretation I've proposed has something of the effect of a gestalt, or of a solution to a puzzle-- once the bracketed words are 'seen' as not belonging to the definition, it's difficult to think them back in there. But I wouldn't be surprised if not everyone were struck in this way.

You are right about the close relationship between states (hexeis) and actions. I would simply say that, if Aristotle did not wish to attempt to specify the role of logos in the definition, but rather left that to be specified (in a sense) through his discussions of particular virtues, then it's there that one ought to look, and speculations about the bracketed words, of the sort that fill all of the articles on the subject, are vain.

I think phronesis in the passage you site tends rather to support my point. Aristotl is giving something of a buckshot list to mark out roughly the difference between virtues of character and virtues of intellect. sophia and phronesis are obvious choices for this, and that he includes sunesis shows he has common usage in mind, not any technical senses so far, according to which these would be differentiated.

Best, MP

Michael Pakaluk said...

Another friend wrote:

"I don't think it the job of the phronimos to come up with abstract definitions; and comparison with the // passage in the EE, in II 5, and the reference back (to one or the other) in 1138b23-5, tend to confirm orthodoxy".

I'll reply to this later.

(I'm fortunate to have several friends quite knowledgeable about such things.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

In reply to this last comment I'll say:

1. I understand phronimos as being used in the non-technical sense of 'someone with insight about human conduct'; the definition is not after all so very abstract; and in any case what the remark about how a phronimos would define virtue is directed at, is the view that virtue couldn't be something intermediate.

2. The EE passage no more supports orthodoxy than 1114b27ff.

3. There is no need to take the book VI remarks as referring back in particular to the II.6 definition.

Anonymous said...


Irwin's second edition translation seems to agree with yours:

"Virtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it."

And in his commentary, he states the definition of virtue as: "It is a mean, guided by prudence." He seems not to take the reference to the prudent person to be part of the definition.

On a related by different note, I'm wondering what you think of "prudence" as a translation of phronesis.


Anonymous said...

On second thought, I think I was completely wrong about the Irwin point. Sorry. But I'm still wondering what you think of the translation of phronesis.


Michael Pakaluk said...

We don't really use the word 'prudence' any more. And in my judgment 'prudence' is not a word that can be easily revived, like 'virtue'.

So, in contexts such as this, where the use is non-technical, I'd prefer a phrase which expresses Aristotle's meaning, such as "person who has insight into human conduct".

Later in book VI, where Aristotle is in effect arguing that there are two virtues of 'wisdom' when others have thought there is only one, then 'practical wisdom' seems to express his meaning well, and, although that term is not used in ordinary English, it is justifiable because phronesis has become at that point a technical term.