Rand, Aristotle and Wisdom

seddon's picture
Submitted by seddon on Tue, 2008-08-26 20:28

Rand wrote in THE OBJECTIVIST ETHICS that, “The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.”

I want to concentrate on Rand’s claim that Aristotle never answered the question of why he evaluated certain men as wise. (I will ignore the “noble” and save that for another day.) Is she right? Did Aristotle never tell us how he evaluated the wise? I think not. He tells us what attributes a man must have in order to be wise. Where does he do that? I shall look at two texts, one from the METAPHYSICS, and one from the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS. Let’s take the former first. Here is what Aristotle says in METAPHYSICS, Book 1, Chapter 2, 982a6ff:
“The wise man knows all things, in the way that it is possible, thought he does not have knowledge of them as particulars. Next, we assume that the one who is able to know things that are difficult, and not easy for a human being to know, is wise; for perceiving is common to everyone, for which reason it is an easy thing and nothing wise. Further, we assume the one who has more precision and is more able to teach the causes is wise concerning each kind of knowledge. And among the kinds of knowledge, we assume the one that is for its own sake and chosen for the sake of knowing more to be wisdom than the one chosen for the sake of results, and that the more ruling one is wisdom more so than the more subordinate one; for the wise man ought not to be commanded but to give orders, and ought not to obey someone else, but the less wise ought to obey him.”
Joseph Owens, in his THE DOCTRINE OF BEING IN THE ARISTOTELIAN METAPHYSICS, summarizes the above as follows:
“The ‘wise’ man, accordingly, is considered to know:
1) all things as far as possible, though not having a particular knowledge of each.
2) difficult things.
3 with more exact knowledge.
4) in such a way as to be able to teach the causes.
5) for the sake of knowledge.
6) not to serve, but to command.” (164)
If this doesn’t count for Aristotle telling us why he evaluates certain persons as wise, I don’t know what would count.
But wait. Meta. I, 2 is not the only place Aristotle talks about the wise man. In NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, he devotes chapter 7 of Book VI to a discussion of the wise man. And although Aristotle seems to say different things about the wise man, there is no doubt he tells us how he would evaluate a man as wise. The man who has wisdom (Sophia) is the man who combines the ability to reason to conclusions (episteme) with an immediate grasp of the sources of arguments (nous) about eternal and unchanging things. For an extended discussion of both of these passages, the interested SOLOist is directed to Heidegger’s PLATO’S SOPHIST, pp. 65-89.

Fred


( categories: )

Mindy

seddon's picture

I agree, but that is I think the very passage I referred to. He will drop the "attributes" in the next paragraph. I don't find that contradictory, but dialectical.
Attributes are not "independent things" but obviosly "attributed" to independent things. Although someone out to bash Aristotle and unfamiliar with the way he writes could claim that he is contradicting himself. He requires careful reading.

Fred

Confusing, but not contradictory

Ptgymatic's picture

From Book II part I, Aristotle's "Physics"

"The term 'according to nature' is applied to all these things and also to the attributes which belong to them in virtue of what they are, for instance the property of fire to be carried upwards--which is not a 'nature' nor 'has a nature' but is "by nature' or 'according to nature.'"

 The distinctions Aristotle is making are subtle. To my knowledge, nobody bothers with them these days. However, I find he makes sense with his distinctions, and he doesn't make you read pages--or even paragraphs--to get to the point.

--Mindy

Mindy

seddon's picture

Yeah, you're probably right -- one has to be careful about putting quotes together. And this is compounded by the fact that Aristotle writes "dialectically," which means he may say something in, say, Book 1 that he corrects or rejects in a later Book. A good (because so compressed) examples of this occurs in the PHYSICS, Book 2. In paragraph 1 he lists some things that exist by NATURE, "by nature are animals and their PARTS." (192B10) But in paragraph 2, he tells us that everything that has a nature is "an independent thing" like a man or a horse. Therefore, parts of animals do not have a nature. (192b36) If one only quotes the first, one can make it seem that Aristotle thought that the parts of animals also have a nature, in addition to the animal itself.
So happy hunting.
Right now where I'm at I see his account as both coherent and non-circular, but I'm always ready to learn.

Fred

I meant Aristotle

Ptgymatic's picture

...has interdefined terms in his account of the good life, the virtuous man, the wise man, etc. I'll have to go back and re-read to give an answer to your post. I'm sure one can put together an account by selecting suitable definitions or explanations, but whether or not Aristotle's position on ethics is coherent is very much in question.

--Mindy

Mindy

seddon's picture

“he defines virtue in terms of what the wise man would choose”

Aristotle does provide a definition of virtue without mentioning the wise man. In NE, 2, 1105a30-33, using justice and temperance as examples of virtue, he writes “if one does them first of all knowingly, and next, having chosen them and chosen them for their own sake, and third, being in a stable condition and not able to be moved all the way out of it.” In my words, your act is, say, just if you know it is just, you choose it because it is just and you have a settle disposition of acting justly.

Book 2, Ch. 5 gives us the genus of virtue (arête) as an “active condition;” and ch. 6 gives us the differentia as “choosing the relative mean.” Putting these together we have virtue is an “active condition of choosing the relative mean.” This seems to allow Aristotle to escape the charge of circularity.

But maybe you have in mind passages like the one at 1106b35 where he writes, “Virtue is an active condition that makes one apt at choosing, consisting in a mean condition in relation to us, which is determined by a proportion and by means by which a man of PRACTICAL JUDGMENT would determine it. But this is not the wise man, and confuses phronesis with sophia. And even here, I don’t think the reference to the man of practical judgment is an essential part of the definition. In Book 6, ch. 5, which deals phronesis, Aristotle defines it as “a truth-disclosing active condition involving reason that governs action, concerned with what is good and bad for a human being.” This would seem to indicate that virtue isn’t virtue because the man of practical judgment chooses it, but rather a man has practical judgment if he chooses virtue.

There are statements in Book 6, ch. 7 that would define wisdom in such a way that it has nothing to do with virtue. He begins that chapter by talking about “wisdom in the arts” such as artists like Phidias and Polycleitus would posssess. But this is not sophia in the strictest sense. He goes on to talk about wisdom in this sense as being “the most precise kind of knowledge” (1141a15) which consists “of intellect (nous) and knowledge (episteme)," neither of which have to do with the virtues of character, i.e., temperance, justice etc. (Heidegger, by the way, seems to disagree with me and you can check the pages to his work, THE SOPHIST, that I gave in my original post.)

“But the interdefinition of terms is inescapable.”

Do you mean this to apply only to Aristotle, or to any and all philosophers?

Thanks,
Fred

The problem is

Ptgymatic's picture

...that he also says other things. There is a term, "Aristotelian circle" for the fact that he defines virtue in terms of what the wise man would choose, and then defines the good as what seems good to the virtuous man, and then defines the wise man as he who can deliberate successfully toward the good. Maybe some of that isn't actually Aristotle, as there is controversy over what ought to be attributed to him. But the interdefinition of terms is inescapable.

Rand's take on Aristotle, in this way, is standard for philosophy.

--Mindy

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