06 March 2008

A Greek Idol, part III

Once again, it's not too late to join this show. Also, if you have on hand another translation which you think is better in some places than the ones we are considering, please feel free to post that for our benefit. (I'm on break this week and cannot easily get at my office, e.g. Irwin or Ostwald.)

Once again, here's the Greek:

εἰ οὖν μὴ ἔσται εὐπειθὲς καὶ ὑπὸ τὸ ἄρχον, ἐπὶ πολὺ ἥξει· ἄπληστος γὰρ ἡ τοῦ ἡδέος ὄρεξις καὶ πανταχόθεν τῷ ἀνοήτῳ, καὶ ἡ τῆς ἐπιθυμίας ἐνέργεια αὔξει τὸ συγγενές, κἂν μεγάλαι καὶ σφοδραὶ ὦσι, καὶ τὸν λογισμὸν ἐκκρούουσιν.

Here are the offered translations:

(Senn) If, therefore, [a child or appetite] is not obedient—and [not obedient] to the ruling [entity]—then it will go too far; for, in the one who lacks understanding, the longing for what's pleasant is unfulfillable—unfulfillable even [if filled] from every [source]; and the actualization of the appetite increases what is inborn, and if [the appetites] are great and vehement, they will drive out even reasoning.

(Beresford) So [in either case] unless it does as it’s told and is under the ruling element it will run amok, because desire for pleasure, in a thing without sense, is insatiable and is set off by anything. Also, the exercising of desire [in adults] will cause its connate [faculty] to grow, and when desires are big and extreme they even knock out deliberation.

(Pakaluk) So if such a thing isn’t docile, and doesn’t follow the thing that has authority over it, it will grow too large. Why? Because:

  1. its wanting pleasure is something that can’t be satisfied, and
  2. in a thing which itself lacks direction, the wanting of pleasure is occasioned by anything at all; and
  3. the activation of any sensual desire leads to the increase of anything akin to it; and
  4. when sensual desires are strong and intense, they even deflect rational reflection.

(Rowe) If, then, whatever desires shameful things is not ready to obey and under the control of the ruling element, it will grow and grow, for the desire for the pleasant is insatiable and indiscriminate, in a mindless person, and the activity of his appetite augments his congenital tendency; and if his appetites are strong and vigorous, they knock out his capacity for rational calculation as well

(Taylor) ... so if it is not made submissive and subject to some control, it will grow to a large extent. The appetite for pleasure is insatiable and attacks the thoughtless person from all sides, and the actual occurrence of bodily desires increases that aspect of our nature, especially if they are strong and intense, and if they drive out rational thought.

(Ross/Urmson) If, then, it is not going to be obedient and subject to the ruling principle, it will go to great lengths; for in an irrational being the desire for pleasure is insatiable and tries every source of gratification, and the exercise of appetite increases its innate force, and if appetites are strong and violent they even expel the power of calculation.


1. ‘docile’/ ‘doesn’t follow’: I understand Aristotle to mean two different things by εὐπειθές and ὑπὸ τὸ ἄρχον. The former I think is meant to signify an attitude or manner; the latter some pattern of behavior. (The former, if you will, is dispositional, the second law-like.) That’s why I’ve not followed Beresford’s appealing ‘does as it’s told’ for εὐπειθές, because that phrase combines two things that Aristotle (I think) wished to introduce separately.

2. ‘follows the thing that has authority over it’ (ὑπὸ τὸ ἄρχον)— It’s not ruling, but authority, which Aristotle has in mind: what is precisely at stake is whether what has authority succeeds in ruling. ‘Subject to some control’ (Taylor) is therefore too indefinite; ‘subject to the ruling principle’ (Ross/Urmson) gets the sense right, but its connotation is such that it can’t easily be applied to the child/guardian relationship, which Aristotle’s phrase is meant to cover also. (Senn’s ‘subject to the ruling entity’ and Beresfords’s ‘under the ruling element’ are slightly better.)

3. ‘it will grow too large’ (ἐπὶ πολὺ ἥξει)—I think this is the proper sense of the expression. ἥξει suggests arrival at a stopping point in a some process of development or growth; ἐπὶ πολὺ signifies that the grow has gone too far, beyond its proper limits or scope. The best analogue in the Aristotelian corpus is τὸ ἐπὶ πολὺ ἀφικνεῖσθαι, Magna Moralia 1213b6, where the author argues that, just as all natural powers, because of an inherent weakness, have a limited extension of their operation, so too the capacity for friendship can only ‘go so far’: ἐφ' ἁπάντων γὰρ καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἐξαδυνατεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ φύσις ἀσθενὴς οὖσα πρὸς τὸ ἐπὶ πολὺ ἀφικνεῖσθαι. (See also Nic. Eth. 1121b16, καὶ διατείνει δ' ἐπὶ πολύ, stinginess ‘has an extensive influence on us’).

4. 'Why? Because ... ' (γάρ): now there come four reasons why it will grow excessively. How we render these reasons must depend on our understanding of what the reality is that Aristotle wishes to describe. There is no getting around that, because Aristotle’s phrases are too clipped to allow us to guess the meaning simply from a contemplation of his language. Rather, we must have in mind a reality which we then can see the language as appropriately discussing. As might be expected, there is a logic to the reasons Aristotle provides:

  1. Epithumia contains no inherent or intrinsic principle which would place a limit on its growth: ‘its wanting pleasure is something that can’t be satisfied’
  2. Epithumia has no external limits, because nearly anything can stimulate it: 'in a thing which itself lacks direction, the wanting of pleasure is occasioned by nearly anything'. Here the ending -θεν suggests direction from, and πανταχόθεν is meant to signify, I think, that the stimulus for sense desire, for an disciplined child or adult, can come from any direction. (Aristotle has in mind a contrast, I think, with how a mature and reflective person won’t place himself in circumstances in which, or allow himself to perceive things by which, epithumia would predictably get stimulated.)
  3. Not having any internal or external restrictions on its growth, epithumia moreover contains an inherent principle of expansion: ‘the activation of any sensual desire leads to the increase of anything akin to it.’ τὸ συγγενές means vaguely, I think, anything akin to some particular desire: e.g. (undisciplined) desire for this woman, if actualized (by imagination, action), tends to increase desires for other women; (undisciplined) desire for this extra food now tends to increase also desires for extra food at times before and after. The claim is general because there are hundreds of ways in which this works, as we all know from experience.
  4. The growth of epithumia even tends to block the imposition of limits that would be placed upon it by (what Aristotle presumes to be) the naturally superior power of reasoning: ‘when sensual desires are strong and intense, they even deflect rational reflection.’
The progression therefore is: (1) no intrinsic limit; (2) no extrinsic limit; but (3) inherently expansive; and (4) becoming resistant to its natural principle of control. That's why it's best to give these in a list in a translation. Anyone giving four coherent reasons in such a short span of text would do so. Not to give them in a list is the distortion.