46 - Dominic Scott on Aristotle's Ethics

Peter chats with Dominic Scott of the University of Virginia, and talks about Aristotle's audience, method and conclusions in the Nicomachean Ethics.

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Further Reading: 

• D. Scott, "Aristotle on well-being and intellectual contemplation," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary vol. (1999), 225–242.

• D. Scott, "Aristotle and Thrasymachus," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 19 (2000), 225–52.

Malcolm's picture

Is theoretical contemplation *really* superior?

Assuming that theoretical contemplation involves thinking through, say, mathematical proofs, is such an activity *really* "the happiest pursuit"? I have two physics degrees so have done a fair amount of "theoretical contemplation", but my first choice for pleasure reading is not "Astrophysical Journal", it's Charles Dickens.

The empirical evidence I've seen doesn't point to "theoretical contemplation" as being more "happiness producing" than other activities. Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow", for instance, suggests that *many* activities can produce top-notch happiness. It doesn't suggest that reading Euclid is any better than, say, mountain climbing, or reading Dickens.

Peter Adamson's picture


Yes, I think many readers have had that general reaction. Ultimately what we are looking for (according to Aristotle at least) is an activity which is (a) valued for its own sake and (b) a realization of our highest capacity. Of course the idea that a certain activity is "best" if it realizes our "best" or "highest" capacity is rather circular. But I think there is room for Aristotle to say that any use of reason for its own sake could satisfy the criteria he lays out in Ethics book X. Not sure whether reading Dickens would qualify; certainly climbing a mountain wouldn't since it is not a pure use of reason. Aristotle does have further arguments he could give here; for instance climbing a mountain is incomplete in each moment you are doing it (since you are only partway up) whereas contemplation, like seeing, is complete at every instant.

Malcolm's picture

Dickens doesn't qualify?

Harold Bloom, in "The Western Canon", says "Shakespeare, who scarcely relies upon philosophy, is more central to Western culture than are Plato and Aristotle" (p.10) What arguments might Aristotle put forward against Bloom?

I've seen it suggested that the best image of Aristotelian contemplation is a lecturer on Euclid's proofs reading through his notes - he knows the material backwards, so doesn't get stuck, and the material is as timeless and exact as knowledge gets.

One problem here is that even Euclid isn't complete - hence the need for non-Euclidean geometry, which itself is incomplete. All philosophical systems are even more incomplete, so humans are condemned to frustration and anxiety over any subject of rational thought.

So how can human rationality be the highest capacity? We are doomed to frustration when using it. So is there something else that might provide more ongoing pleasure than rational thought? What about Dickens? His works are valued for their own sake, and provide easier pleasures than Aristotle, while still being "on the heights"; and you are not bothered, so often, with frustrating thoughts like, "this argument, if I understand it, just doesn't work."

Peter Adamson's picture

Shakespeare vs Aristotle

Hi there - With due respect to Harold Bloom, that's a pretty silly statement about Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle. For one thing Shakespeare is only influential in English language countries and admittedly also Germany. For another thing Shakespeare himself is an illustration of Aristotle's influence, since his plays are to some extent a response to the "Poetics." And for another thing Aristotle had almost a 2000 year headstart on Shakespeare in exerting influence, which he did in literally every sphere of human intellectual activity and not only literature. But maybe in context what Bloom says makes sense. And of course I just might be biased!

As for Plato, don't even get me started.


Malcolm's picture

Shakespeare is Universal

How can you say, "Shakespeare is only influential in English language countries and admittedly also Germany."? Maybe this is true in departments of Ancient Philosophy, but not in general culture. There, surely, no one is more influential than Shakespeare.

To disprove the "only in Germany" slur, I only need to point to Francesco da Mosto's current series "Shakespeare in Italy" on BBC2. Shakespeare is studied in Venetian classrooms, several Italian Operas derive from his works - Falstaff, Othello... Verona bases a large part of its tourist industry around Romeo & Juliet... etc...

Bloom does praise Greek philosophy for originating many of the terms by which we, and Shakespeare, talk about life and death. But, for Bloom, defining some terms, however original and universal, doesn't make one central. It's how you use given terms, and what other terms you bring to the table, that really counts.

Peter Adamson's picture

Shakespeare in Italy

Ok, I stand corrected on Shakespeare in Italy and probably the rest of Europe -- actually to be honest I'm sure he's widely available in all modern languages in Europe and beyond. But I still think his total impact on Western civilization is less than 1% as large as Aristotle's, insofar as one can measure these things.

And by the way the reason I mentioned Germany is that I do think he is particularly treasured there albeit in the classic translations -- as they say, "you haven't read Shakespeare until you've read him in the original German."

Malcolm's picture

Shakespeare and self-change through self-overhearing

Bloom argues that Shakespeare's greatest originality lies in representation of character, and "originates the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing" - Hamlet being the "leading self-overhearer" in all literature. "We all of us go around now talking to ourselves endlessly, overhearing what we say, then pondering and acting upon what we have learned."*

If Bloom is right, then I think he makes a good case for Shakespeare being more central than Aristotle. What is more important than creating the greatest characters in literature, showing how they change, and implanting a similar capacity to change in all of us?

* Quotes from "The Western Canon" chapter 2. Shakespeare, Center of the Canon

Caleb's picture

I can't say I'm anywhere near

I can't say I'm anywhere near being an expert on European history or Shakespeare, but I do think that helping to shape the theological doctrine of Islam and Christianity when those two religions ruled the Western world is a pretty good claim to centrality for Aristotle (and Plato, though I'm not sure if he was as important to Islam).

Also, it's certainly a controversial (albeit defensible) claim to say that Shakespeare created the greatest characters in literature - he's one of the greats, but he had a tradition of other great authors to draw upon, and many others have come after with at least a comparable skill. Regardless, once we finally have a Republic no one will be reading him anyway ;)

Malcolm's picture

Shakespeare is the greatest

I don't think it's a controversial claim to say that Shakespeare created the greatest characters in literature. In literature departments it tends to be acknowledged that Shakespeare is at the centre of the literary canon. He's not just one of the greats, he is generally considered to be the greatest - with some competition from perhaps a few others, perhaps ( Homer? Dante? Goethe? Cervantes?)

He did draw on a tradition of great authors, but those he drew on are generally considered to not be quite at his level - Ovid, Montaigne, Chaucer, Bacon... Very few who have come after, if any, are considered comparable.

Jimbo Jones's picture

Shakespeare & the Poetics

Hi Peter!

As far as I know, it's unlikely Shakespeare could have read the Poetics since it hadn't yet been translated into English and, according to Ben Jonson, he knew "little Latin and less Greek." His plays certainly don't support the view that he had much interest in the strictures of the Poetics, either--at least as it was then interpreted in terms of the "three unities." He totally disregards the unities of place and time. So I'm having difficulty thinking of how his works could be considered a "response" to the Poetics.

On the other hand, you can totally see the indirect influence of Aristotle's works in his plays, since his culture's views on sex, astronomy, women, physics, medicine, etc., are often derived from Aristotle. He even has Hector in Troilus and Cressida refer to Aristotle by name, citing his disapproval of young men being taught political science--forgetting that Aristotle wouldn't be born for many centuries!

Peter Adamson's picture

Shakespeare and the Poetics

Yes, I was thinking not that he read the Poetics but that there was a standard (Aristotelian) idea about how plays should be structured, to which Shakespeare was inevitably responding (perhaps by rejecting the idea) when he wrote his plays. But it sounds like you know a lot more about this than I do!

Peter Lührs's picture

easier pleasures

How can reading Dickens be the higher pleasure if it's easier on our capacity to reason? The more something strains that capacity, the more one uses it, the happier one is, by definition. Aristotelian happiness (eudaimonia) is not the same as the emotional state of feeling good and having fun (hedone). Rather, happiness is defined with the function of the human in mind in such a way that excercising that function well is human happiness. So, we should habituate ourselves to feel pleasure with things that are in accord with this function.

The frustration we encounter in contemplation is due to the fact, I think, that we are human beings attempting to engage in a divine activity whenever we are thinking about the eternal principles. That's why Aristotle concedes that we can't really live such a life continuously:

"But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him;" (Nicomachean Ethics, X 7)

Contemplation of highest principles is, in the end, something we can't pursue continuously, but not due to the fact that it's an activity that can't be pursued continuously in principle, but due to our human limitations. Also, one needs to be prepared to use these divine capacities by education. It is though, even with all those limitations, still the best activity a human can possibly pursue. If someone is - in general - more happy with Dickens than Euclid or Aristotle's Metaphysics, then this isn't due to the fact that reading Dickens is intrinsically better, but that the reader is in some way 'deficient'. This deficiency might be temporal (it's hard to contemplate eternal principles while starving) or due to habitual reasons. If the latter is the case, that is someone habitually can't feel the right amount of pleasure with the right things, how can such a poor sod be called happy in the sense of eudaimonia? Even so, if he reads Euclid and thinks it through, he's happier with that than while reading Dickens, even though it's less pleasurable for him.

So what would Aristotle say in regard to Dickens vs Euclid? I guess it's what book ten part seven of the Nicomachean Ethic deals with. As he says there:

"But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything."

Still, I'd say Aristotle thinks there's a time and place for reading Dickens and that there can be some (lesser) happiness in this. It's just that we shouldn't stop there.

Peter Adamson's picture

Lower and higher pleasure

I think that's a very eloquent summary of what Aristotle would surely say; the last quotation is especially on point. If Aristotle wanted to be more Dickens-friendly, he might add that reading material like this could be important in moral formation. Of course he doesn't talk about novels but he certainly does envision music and poetry as important in moral upbringing, as we can see from the "Politics." Of course here he's following Plato.

I guess someone who wanted to criticize Aristotle's stance might insist that the aesthetic as such is not so easily to be excluded from the highest life; and reading Dickens might be aesthetic in some really important sense that contemplating God omits. I will actually have an interview on ancient aesthetics in the podcast series, which will come along this fall right after Proclus so that could be a good moment to revisit the issue.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!


Malcolm's picture

easier pleasures are less stressful

How can you say one pleasure is higher than another? Aristotle may argue that philosophical reasoning is our highest capacity, but how does he know this? From a serious effort to read both Dickens and Aristotle (several months of effort with each) I have found that Dickens gives me far more pleasure. Others may differ.

Peter Lührs's picture

There are for Aristotle, by

There are for Aristotle, by definition, higher pleasures and lower ones by virtue of them being more or less in accord with the happy life and the function of man. That the capacity to reason is the function that is peculiar from humans follows from his premises: It has to be a capacity of humans and it has to be peculiar to them, so, reason it is. That you feel more or less pleasure while doing one or the other thing doesn't mean that one or the other pleasure is higher and lower: Rather, it's the other way around, because a pleasure is higher or lower, you ought to habituate yourself to feel more or less pleasure in pursuing what is pleasurable.

So, how do you know that reading Dickens gives you far more pleasure than reading Aristotle? You tried it and it did so. But how do you know that this is because reading Dickens is more pleasurable in principle? How do you know that if you are disposed in the right way - a disposition you apparently lack - that reading Aristotle is not by far more pleasurable? How do you know that you just fail to be pleased by reading Aristotle?

The way you state it it's simply descriptive, but from that doesn't follow that Aristotle is wrong. Quite the contrary. Aristotle's explanation accounts for the fact that you've experienced more pleasure by reading Dickens then his own works. That is - again - because happiness and pleasure aren't the same and you might thus experience more pleasure in reading Dickens even though reading Aristotle would make your life a better and more valuable one, as you'd extend this divine spark within you.

I really recommend that you read Nicomachean Ethics book X part 7 and maybe also have a look at his definition and his justification of it in book I. He makes his position on this quite clear, even though your reading pleasure might be low, it might take you a step further towards eudaimonia.

Peter Adamson's picture

More on pleasure

Just to throw in my two cents to this interesting discussion I think Peter Lührs has Aristotle right again here. One thing that would be worth stressing is an idea in Aristotle that goes back to Plato (Philebus): that something can be intrinsically pleasurable, in the sense that one would rightly take pleasure in it. So as Peter says the word "pleasant" would be used normatively (and objectively), not descriptively (and subjectively). What makes something pleasant in this sense is not that someone happens to enjoy it but that it is the sort of thing that would rightly be enjoyed. Of course that may make his view seem question-begging but he has further arguments: contemplation is most active, most unfettered by external needs, shared with the divine, etc. These give us objective reasons to say that contemplation is objectively the most pleasant activity, and one cannot really refute him by reporting subjectively that one tried contemplation without enjoying it. One has to argue against the position by either (a) rejecting the idea of the objectively pleasant and insisting that "pleasant" can only have a subjective meaning, or (b) questioning his arguments for the objective pleasantness of contemplation.

Malcolm's picture

Epicurus or Aristotle?

I've read NE. I prefer Epicurus on happiness. He holds that happiness is, indeed, based on pleasure. Aristotle's ideas on happiness don't seem coherent to me - what's so good about "man's unique function"? Why would you want to reason just because you are uniquely good at reasoning? You might be uniquely good at hammering a nail into your head, does that mean you should start hammering?

How can you say that contemplation is shared with the divine? Can you show me a divine contemplator?

I *do* reject the idea of the objectively pleasant. Only people, and other animals, feel "pleasure", so how can pleasure be objective? There may be (some) agreement between people on what gives the most pleasure, but this doesn't mean that pleasure is objective.

Phew, this is hard work - I'm off to read Dickens :)

Peter Lührs's picture

Why the hard work?

Now, why the hard work, then? You just could stop there and go read Dickens instead all the time, no? Apparently that's not enough though, otherwise you'd have little reason to debate here and engage in philosophical debates.

Why should pleasure be something that is entirely subjective? Why shouldn't there things that are rightly enjoyed? I mean, really, if you're an Aristotelian you can account for why it's a bad idea to hammer a nail into your head. For even if you are uniquely good at hammering nails one shouldn't hammer nails into ones own head - that's not what they are there for.

On the other hand: If someone is pleased by hammering nails into his head and does so, would this make him a happy man? Is it right to hammer nails into your head, if it's pleasurable to you? I don't think so. How about someone who enjoys the thrill of killing? Should we, seeing pleasure as the basis of happiness recommend him to go on a killing spree as it is pleasurable to him? Would it make him a happier man, in your opinion? I again, would deny this entirely. I think it's hard to see how happiness can be achieved by doing something that is wrong, even though this wrong is pleasurable, if happiness is what we strive for and do so justified. So, if you base happiness on pleasure, you've got a problem there, I think. One would have to introduce an utilitarian calculus or something alike there to get this handled.

I also don't think that the fact that humans and animals feel pleasure precludes pleasure from being objectively accountable for in certain respects. You won't find the mathematical formulas that describe the laws of nature directly in nature and one could say they are constructs of the human mind. Still, they aren't something entirely subjective, we are justified in applying them by the extent they match nature and therefore are objective. I think the same is true for pleasure. Why shouldn't it?

Also, pleasure can be deceiving. Of course we all are pleased to have lots of sweets, it's part of our biological constitution, especially as long as we haven't reached adulthood. Still, there are many unpleasing long term consequences of having too many sweets. So, one gets into the paradoxical situation that engaging in the activity of having lots of sweets is pleasurable and is thus conducive to achieve happiness, it's on the other hand covertly detrimental to happiness. A pleasure based happiness theory would have to give an account for that situation as well.

Aristotle has no problem with that: Having sweets is something that is good, to a certain degree - we need sugars to stay alive. In a certain environment, it's always good to have sweets when we can get them - that is, under the condition that they are rare. In an environment where we suddenly have superfluous access to sweets it's not a good thing at all to indulge the pleasure of having sweets whenever we can. It's a pleasure we should avoid to lead a long, healthy and happy life.

Also, if I got my Epicurus right, he didn't base happiness on simple pleasure, but rather on the absence of pain and the state of ataraxia or 'perfect mental peace'. The key to this is his distinction between natural and unnatural pleasures, which introduces a distinction that's not so different from Aristotle's distinction between higher and lower pleasures.

To get to an end: If after reading the NE Aristotle's idea of happiness seems to be incoherent, then I recommend reading it again and studying it attentively. While I agree that Aristotle's surviving works aren't easy to read and aren't very pleasurable in that respect, I don't think that his concept isn't coherent. One can reject his premises, but there one would have to deal with some arguments that defend those.

Malcolm's picture

Variety is the spice of life

I stopped listening a few weeks ago and have spent most of my spare time since then reading novels. I'm still open to a little philosophical debate, but find it a bit of a strain. I think it's part of human nature (or at least my nature!) to want a variety of things. I get bored doing just one thing all the time, even reading Dickens. So having a chat in a forum is a nice change of pace. So if anyone starts up an intelligent forum chat on anything, I'm likely to get involved.

I think Aristotle's teleological approach is fatally flawed. Human heads are not there for anything, they are just what has evolved or developed. Existentialists would argue that we can choose to do what we want with our heads. There is no God who has written a scripture saying exactly how human heads should be used. I've actually seen a stage show where guy does hammer a nail into his head! He seemed to get much pleasure from it.

Killing involves others, maybe me! So killers should definitely be locked up. Some serial killers *do* get great pleasure from killing, and seem happy. In any case, happy or not, I think we should all agree they should be locked up!

If the serial killer thought it through he might see that the pain of incarceration would outweigh the pleasures of killing. This involves encouraging *some* rational thought - I am not saying that all rational thought is a waste of time... I just can't see that it is the "one divine function of a human". If rational thought is so great does that make the mighty chess champion Deep Blue, a computer, the happiest entity in the universe?

Maybe you are right about Aristotle being self-coherent. But I cannot agree with his teleological approach,. Since Darwin how can that be taken seriously? If humans don't have one divinely ordained function (Euclidean contemplation?) then his eudaimonism falls apart, and we need something else to define happiness. I can only see pleasure as providing the means to do that. Some combination of Bentham and Epicurus perhaps?

Peter Lührs's picture

While I agree that we should

While I agree that we should lock up a serial killer, why should we given a pleasure based conception of happiness? Doesn't he have a right to live a happy life while we have? And why would that be? If we introduce a utilitarian calculus, we aren't just basing happiness on pleasure, but we give a recipe to differentiate between justified and unjustified pleasure, which would, in a way be a concession to Aristotle, as it would admit that we can give hierarchies of pleasures.

Also, I don't see how Aristotle's teleological approach is deeply flawed. It doesn't involve a God who has written scripture how human heads should be used, anyway. And indeed there are people who get pleasure from hammering nails into their heads. It's still not what hammers and nails are there for. It shows that, while we can have pleasure in using something in an unintended way, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have a function. Nails - I hope we can agree on that - don't (usually - I'm not quite sure if there are exceptions that are used in modern medicine) have the function to be hammered into heads. Heads, in quite the same way, aren't there to get nails hammered into them.

As to Deep Blue: He isn't thinking at all, given Aristotle's theory of thinking, as thinking is an activity of certain living beings. Deep Blue isn't a living being at all. Also, I think this example of you ascribing rational thought to a computer, shows quite nicely that what we hold to be "rational thought" isn't exactly what Aristotle had in mind there. This is why I rather talk about the capacity to reason. Deep blue is able to achieve a stated goal or solve a stated problem. But to do that he still needs to get that goal or problem stated. The capacity to reason is thus more than simple problem solving, it's involving stating problems and goals.
Aside that, Deep Blue isn't really thinking rationally, even. All it 'does' - or rather is used for - is computing a solution, just as one would be able to compute solutions to well stated mathematical problems with, say, an abacus. Deep blue is just more complex and can be used to compute more complex problems.

Also, what if the killer thinks that the pleasure he gets from killing people is greater than the pain of imprisonment? Maybe he enjoys being in prison, too? Or maybe his (subjective) pleasure in killing people is in fact bigger than the pain of imprisonment?

So, how can Aristotle's teleological approach be taken serious since Darwin? Well, actually Darwin was a great admirer of Aristotle (He himself stated, after reading De partibus animalium, that his "two gods", Linnaeus and Cuvier, were "mere school-boys compared to old Aristotle.") for his great contribution to taxonomy and comparative functional explanations in biology. He, after all, originated both. Functions of body parts and the proper function of the organism is then something of high importance to Darwin - something that decides about life and death of entire species and genera.
Against the argument that functions of parts of animals don't necessitate that entire animals - or other living beings - have a function peculiar to them, I'd venture that the concept of a niche in biology - which is practically the function of an organism in it's environment - is nothing else but that: functions peculiar to entire organisms.
Also, if you'd say that Aristotelian teleology has more far reaching implications, I'd insist that here you only need to follow Aristotle's teleology to the degree that you accept that there are functions, I think, and that some animals realize functions others don't. This, I would claim, the is not only compatible with Darwins theory of evolution, but an important part of it, without which it looses it's explanatory power. And of course Darwin would agree that heads didn't evolve to get nails hammered into them. Instead, Darwin would indeed venture that they have a function or several ones. He would disagree strongly with the proposition that "human heads are not there for anything" and that they have not "just what has evolved", but that they arose in evolution exactly because they successfully realize certain functions.

Also, the function that is peculiar to humans needs not at all be divinely ordained, given Aristotle's ethical theory. Actually, I think, it is against Aristotle's conception of God that he would "ordain" anything to humans. The divinity of the human function doesn't lie so much in it being willed by God, but rather that we achieve similitude to the divine when engaging in it.

So, I hope you see that Darwin and Aristotle are in agreement about a lot of things and that Aristotle's teleological approach isn't rebuked by Darwin as far as functions go and thus that Aristotle's theory of eudaimonia is compatible with Darwinian evolution.

Malcolm's picture

Serial killers have no right to pleasure

We should lock up a serial killer because he tortures us, thereby reducing our pleasure in life. No one has a "God given" right to live a happy life. If somone interferes with our pleasures we can band together to lock him up, and give him a prison sentence that is a serious deterrant to other serial killers. Thereby the sum of pleasures is increased, even if the serial killer is miserable - and I don't care of the serial killer is miserable! Why should I?

Who is to say what hammers and nails are for? They, like everything, are there to maximise pleasure and minimize pain. The circus guy and his audience get pleasure from his act. So hammering nails into head is a valid use of hammer & nails, unless you deny the ultimate importance ogf pleasure.

If a killer thinks that the pleasure he gets from killing people is greater than the pain of imprisonment then we need to increase the pain of imprisonment, or other punsihment, until killers decide to desist from killing.

You say "The divinity of the human function doesn't lie so much in it being willed by God, but rather that we achieve similitude to the divine when engaging in it." But where is this "divine thinker" that humans are supposed to emulate?

Peter Lührs's picture

Well, if no one has a right

Well, if no one has a right to a happy life, then the killer is just as justified to kill you, as you are to band together with others to try locking him up. Why should he care about your life, your pleasure? And even the death penalty isn't determent enough to stop killers.

Hammers and Nails are produced and were invented with a certain function in mind. Of course you can use them to hammer them into your head. Doesn't let their intended use, their function, vanish, though.

Also, one doesn't necessarily need to evoke a divine thinker to acknowledge that in reasoning we are more divine that otherwise. But of course you can read up in Aristotle's works where the divine thinker is according to him, e.g. in his Metaphysics or passages of De motu animalium.

Anyway, I don't think we are getting anywhere here. Though I think it's sad that you fail to see any merit in Aristotle, it's okay that you just don't agree with him.

Malcolm's picture

No divine basis for morality or human function

In the modern age we have killed God and there is no objective basis for morality. Our morality is based in a free choice, not determined by God. So the killer, indeed, has as much right to kill us, as we are to band together with others to try locking him up.

Let's consider a psychopath who thinks only killing will give him enough pleasure, and who is not deterred by the thought of any pain (incarceration, torture, are nothing to him.) We have a defence against him - we can band together to lock him up so that he can't kill us.

I don't think producers of Hammers and Nails produce them with a *certain* defined end in mind. If the circus guy buys them the seller doesn't say "That's not their function!" and refuses to sell.

The phrase "more divine that otherwise" makes no sense if "divine" is a figment of your imagination. It's like saying "In reality, a centaur is more a horse than a man." In reality a centaur does not exist, so this is nonsense. In a similar way, any sentence using "divine" in the sense that it actually exists is nonsense.

I'm not reading Aristotle's Metaphysics! NE was tough enough. I'm not putting myself through that mill again.

I do see merit in Aristotle, just this discussion has concentrated on points where I disagree with some aspects of his philosophy.