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.


Mokawi said...

Can't wait to read it. But this is cruel.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Mokawi, you are someone after my own heart!