Posts Tagged ‘ethics’


(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




“Should one, then, not deem happy any human being for so long as he is alive; but must one look instead, as Solon has it, to his end? But if it indeed it is necessary to posit such a thesis, then is in fact a person happy when he is dead? Or is this, at least, altogether strange, specially for us who say that happiness is a certain activity? But if we do not say that the dead person is happy —and this is not what Solon means either —- but say rather than someone might safely deem a human being blessed only once he is already removed from bad things and misfortunes, this too admits of some dispute. For it is held that both something bad and something good can befall the dead person, if in fact they can befall the living person who does not perceive it —-for example, honors and dishonors, and the faring well or the misfortunes of his offspring and descendants generally.

But these things too are perplexing; for someone who has lived blessedly until old age and come to this end accordingly, it is possible that many reversals may occur involving his descendants just as some of these descendants may be good and attain the life that accords with their merit, but others the contrary. Yet it is clear that it is possible for these descendants to be of varying degrees of remove from their ancestors. Indeed,  it would be strange if even the dead person should share in the reversals and become now happy, now wretched again. But it would be strange too if nothing of the affairs of the descendants should reach the ancestors, not even for a certain time.

But one must return to the perplexity previously mentioned, for perhaps what is now being sought might also be contemplated on the basis of it. If indeed one does have to see a person´s end and at that time deem each person blessed, not as being blessed [now] but as having been such previously —how is this not strange if, when he is happy, what belongs to him will not be truly attributed to him? [This strange consequence] arises on account of our wish not to call the living happy, given the reversals that may happen, and of our supposition that happiness is something lasting and by no means easily subject to reversals, while fortunes often revolve for the same people. For it is clear that if we should follow someone’s fortunes, we will often say that the same person is happy and then again wretched, declaring that the happy person is a sort of chameleon and on unsound footing.

Or is it not at all correct to follow someone’s fortunes? For it is not in these that doing well or badly consists. Rather, human life requires these fortunes in addition, just as we said; yet it is these activities in accord with virtue that have authoritative control over happiness, and the contrary activities on the contrary.

The perplexity just now raised also bears witness to the argument, since in none of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue. For such activities seem to be more lasting than even the sciences; and the most honored of them seem to be more lasting, because those who are blessed live out their lives engaged, to the greatest degree and most continuously, in these activities. This seems to be the cause of our not forgetting such activities. Indeed, what is being sought will be available to the happy person, and he will be such throughout life. For he will always, or most of all act on and contemplate what accords with virtue, and he —- and least he who is truly good and “four-square, without blame” — he will bear fortunes altogether nobly and suitably in every way.

Now, many things occur by chance, and they differ in how great or small they are.  The small instances of good fortune, and similarly of its opposite, clearly do not tip the balance of one´s life, whereas the great and numerous ones that occur will, make life more blessed (since these naturally help adorn life, and dealing with them is noble and serious). But those fortunes that turn out in the contrary way restrict and even ruin one´s blessedness, for they both inflict pain and impede many activities. Nevertheless, even in the midst of these, nobility shines through, whenever someone bears up calmly under many misfortunes, not because of any insensitivity to pain but because he is well-born and great souled.

And if the activities have authoritative control over life, just as we said, then no one who is blessed would become wretched, since he will never do things that are hateful and base. For we suppose that someone who is truly good and sensible bears up under all fortunes in a becoming way and always does what is noblest given the circumstances, just as a good general makes use, with the greatest military skill, of the army he has and a shoemaker makes the most beautiful shoe out of leather given him. It holds in same manner with all the other experts as well. And if this is so, then the happy person would never become wretched —nor indeed would he be blessed, it is true, if he encounters the fortunes of Priam. He would not be unstable and subject to reversals either, for he will not be easily moved from happiness, and then not by any random misfortunes but only great and numerous ones. And as a result of such things he would not become happy again in a short time; but, if in fact he does, he will do so in the completion of some lengthy time during which he comes to attain great and noble things.

What, then, prevents one from calling happy someone who is active in accord with complete virtue and who is adequately equipped with external goods, not for any chance time but in a complete life? Or must one posit in addition that he will both live in this way and meet his end accordingly —- since the future is in immanifest to us, and we posit happiness, wholly and in every way, as an end and as complete? And if this is so, we will say that those among the living who have and will have available to them the things stated are blessed —-but blessed human beings.

Let what pertains to these things too be defined up to this point.”

(NE, 1100a10-1101a22; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

1) What are we to make of this striking subsection? What is its argumentative “spirit”? Isn’t it in its ENTIRETY extremely odd and perplexing? For instance, isn’t it surprising to find Ar. begin AND end a subsection by asking so many questions himself? Is he pushing us in this direction, after having set the “rules of the game” by means of his three crucial previous digressions? Could he be starting to TEACH us to puzzle? For isn’t a QUESTION, rather more active than a STATEMENT? And isn’t Aristotelian happiness a kind of ACTIVITY? Doesn’t a QUESTION allow us the freedom to, in the end, think for ourselves? In similar fashion, didn’t Socrates question so that he did NOT have to write? Isn’t the QUESTION, the foundation of classical philosophical dialectics (and thus conceived in a crucially different sense than that found in the ontological structure of Heidegger’s Dasein and its capacity to question; Introduction to Being and Time)? But WHAT are we puzzling about here that makes this subsection so STRANGE? Isn’t it about the most difficult of topics, namely our temporal finitude and ultimate DEATH? Indeed, how CAN we be happy as humans if we are mortal and MUST die? In this respect, won’t this subsection turn out to be KEY for Aristotelians intent on challenging the APOLITICAL Heideggerian conception of finitude? And in this regard, why are we here SO concerned with the temporality (QUANTITY) of our lives (somehow reaching old age unscathed), rather than with the QUALITY of our lives? For, isn’t the WHOLE ethical point “HOW we live our lives”, rather then “HOW LONG we live our lives”? And, don’t TYRANTS live really really long (see below)? Is this part of the troubling political fact surrounding the question of temporality and finitude (pace Heidegger´s own dramatically apolitical notion of time in Being and Time)? Just recently, didn’t Mubarak outlast many? And, ethically speaking, surely HITLER outlived many much more righteous men, didn’t he? So, under this perplexing view, are we to count a life as worthwhile ONLY until we reach 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 (like Abraham who only until THAT advanced age was given forth his promise)? Or put yet another way, were previous cultures less happy because their average life expectancy was much less then ours? Are WE moderns happier because “we” —–well, really only those in developed countries—- DO in fact last much longer (even if connected to all sorts of medical machines)? Haven’t we, ironically, simply given greater chance to chance to act upon us as Ar. had pointed out in our previous commentary?

But returning to the tone/spirit of the subsection, isn’t it ALL kind of spooky? I mean, aren’t we sort of dealing with communications with, or at the very least, referring to the dead (albeit, close kin in particular) and similar issues? And that it IS so, is shown in the even STRANGER subsection XI (“Do the fortunes of the living affect the dead”) which follows immediately? Doesn’t Ostwald allow us to see how far he misses precisely the tone of the whole passage in his footnote 44 and his reference to Burnet´s interpretation of Aristotle? But, how are WE, specially we moderns born out of the secular transfiguration, to take this in (see quote Professor Taylor below)? For surely there seems to be not a single expression of irony or laughter in Ar.’s presentation, is there? Could we not say, that indeed it is HERE, more than anywhere else in the NE, that we actually find one of the most valuable and explicit examples of Ar.’s philosophical generosity towards the life of the noblest of citizens (as is clear by the example given here of Solon)? For isn’t Ar. truly going out of his way in his attentive respect for the beliefs held by traditional leading citizens and THEIR concerns about temporality and happiness? How so? Because isn’t the concern for temporality of great IMPORT to the serious citizens of a political community? Isn’t it the case that for THEM the family, specially, is the locus of an endurance and immortality beyond the ephemeral appearance of any of its individual members (contrast, Diotima´s “The Ladder of Love” speech in Plato’s Symposium)? For wouldn’t a Solon ask: what of a long life WITHOUT a family? What could that be FOR? Mustn’t the individual see beyond him/herself in order to truly achieve happiness?  And moreover, aren’t great leaders, the greatest of leaders, truly thus remembered by all for the SACRIFICES they make in dedicating themselves whole-heartedly to the PUBLIC good? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Solon, the lawgiver, is remembered till this day even beyond the boundaries of his native Athens?  And aren’t those who give up their lives for US in battle, in the crucial defense of our divergent REGIMES, thus remembered as well for exemplifying the virtue of courage by giving themselves for a greater cause than mere life? Isn’t this, in part, why Ar., as we shall see, also refers to Simonides the poet in this very subsection by referencing his appearance in Plato´s dialogue Protagoras (which deals precisely with the question of courage and sophistry; 339b)? For isn’t Simonides famous for his elegies to the fallen dead in the greatest of Greek battles, the most famous being that written as remembrance of the Battle at Thermopylae, and which reads:


Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

(see below)? And we know quite well that elegies and eulogies are far from being the same, don’t we? Actually, in terms of eudaimonia, don’t they stand at extremes?

And so that we may be believed, isn’t the example of Solon here central in THIS regard? Don’t we find precisely THIS concern in Herodotus´s account of Solon —made reference to by Ar. himself? Doesn’t Herodotus allow us to share in the context of Solon’s words? For, we come to know how Solon, in one of his “voyages” outside Athens, came to be questioned/confronted by a tyrant named Croesus? And, doesn’t Croesus indeed know that Solon´s international fame was such as to be considered one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity? But, what does the Tyrant ask in relation to the topic of the NE? Isn’t the question precisely that of the NE as a whole? Doesn’t the TYRANT ask WHO is the happiest human known to be so by Solon himself? And, before dwelling more intimately in the dialogue that ensues between law-giver and TYRANT, mustn’t we mention also that we see in Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” the radically opposite un-Aristotelian tone and sense of fundamental respect by a philosopher towards traditional concerns and beliefs? Don’t we have to contrast here Ar.´s way of proceeding prudently, with Thales outright (effective, yes), but shocking (mocking?) “unveiling” of Solon’s beliefs as regards the possibility of a serious interconnection between one´s  having a family and reaching the highest human happiness available to us?  Isn’t Thales’s’ trick truly outrageous from a much more moderate Aristotelian perspective, namely telling Solon that one of his children has DIED, when in fact it is simply a TEST:

“Thus every answer heightened Solon’s fears, and at last, in great distress of soul, he told his name to the stranger and asked him if it was Solon’s son that was dead. The man said it was; whereupon Solon began to beat his head and to do and say everything else that betokens a transport of grief. But Thales took him by the hand and said, with a smile, “This it is, O Solon, which keeps me from marriage and the getting of children; it overwhelms even thee, who art the most stout-hearted of men. But be not dismayed at this story, for it is not true.”

(my emphasis; p. 419; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Solon*.html; not to mention Thales’s own inconsistencies on the topic.)

Isn’t this example, in part, what makes us clear as to why Thales is considered a Pre-Socratic? For didn’t’ the Socratic revolution, as told to us by Cicero, BRING philosophy back to “earth” via its political concerns? And in parallel fashion, don’t we see Ar. living up to the presuppositions of the founder of Political Philosophy, Socrates, who already knew of his Second Voyage as the KEY to a certain departure from philosophers such as Thales and Anaxagoras? Moreover, leaving aside the fact that a similar “outrageous” test appears as well in the Bible (young Isaacs divinely commanded sacrifice by Abraham at the age of 90+!), don’t we sense as we read this subsection that is it specially the spoudaios who would find Thales’s un-Aristotelian attitude quite “distasteful”, to put it mildly? Or put yet another way, in striking relation to the beginning of Plato’s Republic, don’t we find here Ar.’s bowing to elder citizens such as Cephalus —whose name actually means “head”, as in the expression, “head of the family”—– rather than seeking their direct questioning? And in this regard, don’t we need also recall that THIS more prudential tone is precisely the tone set by the elder Plato in his much more mature, and politically realistic, dialogue, The Laws? For isn’t THAT political dialogue undertaken by a stranger (obviously Socrates, though it is striking that Plato feels the need to cover up such obviousness), and two elder citizens who are quite advanced in their lives and thus closer to death? And isn’t this TONE, that which characterizes the forgotten yet masterful work of Xenophon? Are we surprised then NOT to find Xenophon being read in current Academia?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




“This is also why the perplexity arises as to whether happiness is something that can be gained through learning or habituation or through some other practice, or whether it comes to be present in accord with a sort of divine allotment or even through chance.

Now, if there is in fact anything that is a gift of the gods to human beings, it is reasonable that happiness is god given, and it specially among the human concerns insofar as it is the best of them. But perhaps this would be more appropriate to another examination —yet it appears that even if happiness is not god sent but comes to be present through virtue and a certain learning or practice, it is among the most divine things. For the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed. It would also be something common to many people, for it is possible for it to be available, through a certain learning and care, to all who have not rendered defective in point of virtue. And if it is better to be happy in this way rather than through chance, it is reasonable that  this is how [happiness is acquired] — if in fact what accords with nature is naturally in the noblest possible state, and similar too is what accords with art and with cause as a whole, especially the best [art or cause]. To entrust the greatest and noblest thing to chance would be excessively discordant.

What is being sough is manifest also on the basis of the argument [or definition], for happiness was said to be a certain sort of activity of soul in accord with virtue. Now, of the resulting goods, some must necessarily be present, others are coworkers and by nature useful in an instrumental way. And this points would be in agreement also with those made at the beginning: we posited the end of the political art as best, and it exercises a very great care to make the citizens of a specific sort —namely, good and apt to do noble things. It is to be expected, then, that we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them are able to share in such an activity. It is because of this too that a child is not happy either: he is not yet apt to do such things, on account of his age, though some children are spoken of as blessed on account of the expectation involved in their case. For, as we said, both complete virtue and a complete life are required: many reversals and all manner of fortune arise in the course of life, and it is possible for someone who is particularly thriving to encounter great disasters in old age, just as the myth is told about Priam in the Trojan tales. Nobody deems happy someone who deals with fortunes of that sort and comes to a wretched end. ” (NE, 1099b9-1100a9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

1) To begin, why does Aristotle CLEARLY connect this subsection to the previous one, specially with the reappearance of the question of luck and ethical upbringing? For didn’t he end the previous subsection pointing in this direction? Put directly; why does Ar. —-towards the end of this subsection— tell us that leaving happiness to chance is EXCESSIVELY discordant, but NOT simply COMPLETELY discordant? Why is he SO open to this possibility, or at the very least, its influences? To contrast, haven’t we seen many OTHER subsections ending abruptly? And surely The Bible does not so argue, does it? How could it, given God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge? And surely Kant doesn’t either, does he? What is it about the Kantian categorical imperative that allows it to be blind to fortune? What are the political consequences of this Kantian blindness? Is Habermas aware? And, coming back to the passage, don’t WE take it for granted —and specially the spoudaios— that it is EDUCATION (habituation and learning), moral education in particular, that allegedly makes us in the end good and happy? Isn’t this why parents SEND their children to pre-school, school and university: to aid them in making them fulfilled and complete human beings? Doesn‘t the complex matrix of social education make, allegedly, ALL the difference? Put very succinctly, what is Ar.’s mentioned PERPLEXITY all about: “This is also why the perplexity arises”? What does he MEAN that HAPPINESS may NOT be up to us? Isn’t our modern mindset truly oblivious to THIS possibility? In other words, WHO is thus perplexed: evidently not parents, are they? Law-makers? Or, is it rather that Ar. has ANOTHER aim in mind? Could he be preparing the terrain to make us more OPEN to the complexities of life, more attuned to the myriad situations that may occur and that in FACT we do not, cannot and should not wish to control (see also Plato´s Phaedrus and the initial speeches related to erotic domination, and some of Nussbaum insights)? Won’t we see something like this in BOOK VI, and the crucial discussion of prudence (phronesis) as part of the correction of a certain blindness behind justice AND, more importantly, THE just? Or, in moral terms: isn´t Aristotle slowly opening a serious critique of the radical moralistic claims that underlie the life of the spoudaios? How so? Precisely because perhaps the spoudaios HAS TO believe in the utter responsibility for HIS and OUR own actions? Isn’t this the core element of his “seriousness”, of his noble justice? And don’t we hear it in our daily lives: “take responsibility for …” (specially, and STRIKINGLY, as regards illness)? But, if this were so, if learning the moral virtues by way of a certain serious habituation is the path, the HOW exactly are we to critically, philosophically, Socratically, question the very presuppositions of such seriousness which knows itself not only to have found THE answers, but furthermore, and more problematically, has found in THOSE answers the MEANING of its self-worth? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Plato’s Laws can be seen as setting the stage in which righteous indignation ——which KNOWS of its seriousness and its self-created responsibility— can be softened to EVEN include the philosophical critique of the gods? For, isn’t impiety perhaps the single most IRRESPONSIBLE crime committable by any human? And so that we may be understood, wasn’t Ar.´s departure from Athens the result of such accusations of impiety? Don’t we have to keep constantly in mind both Socratic Apologies in this respect? And, what if Ar. were heading in a similar direction? For isn´t it striking, for instance, that righteous indignation (which is one of the virtues Ar. lists initially), will in fact, NOT be analyzed by Ar. as he proceeds? What is it about nemesis in particular and its relation to justice as punitive retribution that Ar. finds, from the point of view of the philosopher concerned with the truth of the whole, SO deeply troubling? Furthermore isn’t this why Ar. is so adamant about pointing out that there is a BIG difference between voluntary and involuntary actions in BOOK II?  And even going further, could this be the very beginning of Ar.’s concern with Socrates’s famous idea that “no one does evil voluntarily”? But, what is THE POINT OF this idea as regards the greatest most complete and happiest life available to us humans? Won’t Ar. take up that challenge in BOOK VII dedicated to the phenomenon of akrasia (Book which strikingly begins criticizing a Socratic position, ONLY to agree with it in the end!)?

And so that we may be better understood as regards the importance of Ar.’s explicit reference to chance/fortune (tuche); what are we to make of MACHIAVELLI’S distinctively un-Aristotelian and un-biblical concern with chance (fortuna) both in the Prince and in his Discourses (see section IV below)? Shouldn’t we attentively hear Machiavelli’s words when he memorably says in this regard:

“When I have thought about this sometimes, I have been in some part inclined to their opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. And I liken her to one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another; each person flees before them, everyone yields to their impetus without being able to hinder them in any regard. And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.”

What, then, is the aim of the New Rational Political Science inaugurated by Machiavelli and developed by all early modern theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu; albeit in different forms)? Put more directly, how does SCIENCE and the reconsideration of NATURE as purely materialistic and interconnected solely in terms of efficient causality, define the WAY we moderns relate to political things (see Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws)?  Won’t we tend to believe, contrary to what Ar. is telling us is perplexing, that we can in fact control events —both natural and social—-  to such a degree that Ar.´s call for a serious concern with such PERPLEXITIES might be seen as rather naïve (see quote Hobbes section IV below)? But, hasn’t this idea of progressive control, within a materialistic universe founded upon discoverable casual laws, come into question via different angles? Politically speaking, didn’t THE political sphere of the 20th century show this collapse most dramatically of all? But then, if Ar. truly believes that it is the political which ORDERS the human ends towards happiness, how exactly are we to retrace our steps, or regain our footing, beyond the calamities of mere chance OR the calamities of radically directed and deadly political programs? Put another way, isn’t Ar.´s perplexity OUR deepest perplexity once again? In Straussian terminology, doesn’t chance invite a debate between a return and progress?

2) But leaving aside the question of chance, what exactly does Ar. mean by saying that happiness can be gained by learning OR habituation OR —–dramatically—– “some other practice”? First off, isn’t learning a kind of habituation; can they be so easily separated? And how will habituation in BOOKS 2 and 3 be related to the moral virtues in particular so that IT becomes the KEY element in the education of our virtuous character? And, if we are habituated INTO something, that is to say, some way of being, how exactly can we say that WE have made ourselves into such a being? And if so, once again one need ask, did not Ar. say just a few subsections before tell us that justice appears to be by nomos (custom/convention) rather than by physis (nature)? So, aren’t we really speaking of different sorts of habituation depending on the regimes we live under? But then, WHO decides which one is better than another? HOW does one so decide, specially if, as we moderns tend to believe, all cultures are relative and worthy of EQUAL respect? Aren´t all cultures, all habituations, simply historically “determined”? And, thinking of the very way we INTERPRET Ar. himself: isn’t this precisely the issue with those who see in Ar. a duped defense of the Greek virtues per se? Don’t THEY think that Ar. was simply habituated into thinking that philosophy cannot go beyond the limits of what is morally given at any given time by the society of which we are a part? But it is clear Ar. thinks otherwise, doesn’t he? In other words, if there is nothing BEYOND the claims of habituation to form us, how exactly can we even truly speak of LEARNING? Aren’t those who argue that Ar. simply defended the Greek virtues simply submitting to this VERY MODERN belief, rather than tackling Ar.’s realistic challenges to the limits of the moral/political sphere? For, wouldn’t it be extremely ODD that he who is called THE philosopher, were so easily duped in the ESSENTIALS? But if Ar. is not so duped, then what does that say about OUR modern relativistic and historicist self-deceptions? What would Ar. have to offer us THEN? Simply that we become Greek again? The answer is “certainly not”, isn’t it? Or is it we are to learn anew, precisely because a certain kind of HABITUATION has NOT allowed us to see beyond its spheres, respectable as they may be? Isn’t THIS why Ar. adds the striking words “or some other practice”? Couldn’t this OTHER practice be moving US in that direction? For we need ask, why does Ar. not simply say WHAT that other practice might be? Is it because he wishes to be seen as open-minded so that we can add WHAT we wish depending “on the historical times”? Or rather, he PRUDENTLY points to a path for the serious reader who —given the digressions of previous subsections— understands the dangers of philosophical inquiry to the practical political sphere, and consequently is willing to take up this highly critical task within the contours of a much more private educational setting, a setting which perhaps leads  towards the most complete and self-sufficient happiness?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




“One must examine what concerns it, not only on the basis of the conclusion and the premises on which the argument rests, but also on the basis of things said about it. For with the truth, all the given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.


Now, although the good things have been distributed in a threefold manner  ——both those goods said to be external, on the one hand, and those pertaining to the soul and to the body, on the other —— we say that those pertaining to the souls should be the most authoritative and especially good. And we posit as those “goods pertaining to the soul”, the soul’s actions and activities. As a result, the argument would be stated nobly, at least according to this opinion, which is ancient and agreed to by those who philosophize. It would be correct to say that certain actions and activities are the end, for in this way the end belongs among the goods related to soul, not among the external ones.


And that the happy person both lives well and acts well harmonize with the argument, for [happiness] was pretty much said to be a certain kind of living well and good action. It also appears that all the things being sought pertaining to happiness are included in what was said: in the opinion of some, happiness is virtue; of others, prudence; of others, a certain wisdom; in the opinion of still others, it is these or some of these things, together with pleasure or not without pleasure. And others include alongside these the prosperity related to external goods as well. Many of the ancients say some of these things, a few men of high repute say others of them: and it is reasonable that neither of this two group be wholly in error, but rather that they be correct in so respect, at least, or even in some respects.


The argument, then, is in harmony with those who say that [happiness] is virtue or a certain virtue, for an activity in accord with virtue belongs to virtue. But perhaps it makes no small difference whether one supposes the best thing to reside in possession or use, that is, in a characteristic or an activity. For it is possible that, although the characteristic is present, it accomplishes nothing good — for example, in the case of someone who is asleep or has been otherwise hindered. But this is not possible when it comes to the activity: of necessity a person will act, and he will act well.  For just as it is not the noblest and strongest who are crowned with the victory wreath in the Olympic games but rather the competitors (for it is certain of these who win), so also it is those who act correctly who attain the noble and the good things in life.


But their life is also pleasant in itself, for feeling pleasure is among the things related to the soul, and there is pleasure for each person in connection with whatever he is said to be a lover of — for example, a horse is pleasant to the horse lover, a play to the theater lover. In the same manner too the just things are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general, things in accord with virtue are pleasant to the lover of virtue. Now, things pleasant to the many do battle with one another, because such things are not pleasant by nature; but to the lovers of what is noble, the things pleasant by nature are pleasant. Such are too are the actions in accord with virtue, with the result that they are pleasant both to such people and in themselves. Indeed, the life [of those who love what is noble] has no need of additional pleasure, like a sort of added charm, but possess pleasure in itself. For, in addition, to the point mentioned, he who takes no delight in noble actions is not good either; for no one would say that somebody who does not delight in acting justly is just or who does not delight in liberal actions is liberal, and morally in the other cases as well.  And if this is so, then the actions in accord with virtue would, in themselves, be pleasant. But certainly these actions are good as well as noble; and they will be each of these specially, if in fact the serious person judges nobly about them —and he judges as we said.


Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated, as the inscription at Delos has it:


Noblest is what is most just, but best is to be healthy;

And most pleasant by nature is for someone to attain what he passionately desires.


For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities – or the best among them.


Nonetheless, it manifestly requires external goods in addition, just as we said. For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were —through friends, wealth and political power. Those who are bereft of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. ”

(NE, 1098b9-1099b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)



1) Doesn’t modern philosophy have truly much to learn from the procedural points Ar. makes in this, apparently less interesting —“philosophically” speaking—- subsection? Isn’t the modern philosophical outlook, procedural ethics a la Kant in particular, fundamentally biased towards the formal considerations of ethics rather than towards Ar.´s emphasis “on the basis of what is said about it”? Surely what Ar. means is far from Habermas´s Communicative Ethics, isn’t it? Generally speaking, isn’t our philosophical and scientific bias prone to being unable to consider seriously this second element? And particularly, isn’t Political Science, affected most profoundly and dangerously? But then again, WHO is Ar. thinking about when he adds this element? In other words, WHO, more concretely are those who ”say things about it”? Surely he has told us already that the starting point has to involve, to a certain degree, the spoudaios (the serious citizen)? But WHO are the spoudaios, we do not tire of asking: is it primarily the student of the Lyceum? But wouldn’t that be odd? Won’t it most likely be the serious citizen who lives up to the demands of the noble (kalos) and the dutiful respect for the law (nomos)? Isn’t the speaker rather Pericles, or the impressive Diodotus, or Laches, or Nicias, or Ischomachus  (even Thrasymachus already befriended) rather than the student of practical philosophy? But why continue to push this point further? For isn’t it true that we find ourselves involved in a vicious circle nowadays: serious speakers not being taken seriously by the young, and the young not taking serious speakers seriously because academy rarely invites them towards such a respectful prudent recognition? Bluntly, is it any wonder that Lincoln is seen as a racist? But leaving this point aside, what exactly does Ar. mean by telling us that “the truth harmonizes with the given facts, but hits a wrong note with the false”? What truth is he speaking of here, if he does not add ANY details; further, sees NO need to add further details? For surely, that the truth harmonizes seems  to imply some linkage to what is beautifully so, doesn’t it? But how can a relativistic academy in particular even begin to consider this “simple” statement? Isn´t the truth of modern academic theory the one which dictates what in fact harmonizes, or not, with the practical sphere (see quotes by Strauss, Section IV below)? Isn’t Ar., then, ONCE again providing ANY kind of philosophical/theoretical endeavor, with its most original and inescapable limitations? However, isn’t modern academia’s self-understanding quite different? Isn’t the modern university THE leader in the implementation of political perspectives, so that the political leaders in many cases cannot but be seen suspiciously by those who attend these learning settings? But be that as it may; really, don’t we just have to listen to Ar. to SEE which truth he is speaking of, namely, that there are 3 types of hierarchically ordered goods? Isn’t part of this truth, the one that harmonizes with “  the way things are said”,  that among those goods “those pertaining to the soul should be the most authoritative and especially good”? But, then, wouldn’t one have to INVESTIGATE what soul is as Ar. does in the De Anima? But surely he does not even ask us to refer to THAT work here, does he? Besides, what does it mean for Ar. that just simply the WAY we speak of the soul is SUFFICIENT as providing the bedrock of an investigation into the ethical? And by way of contrast, what if we have come to see ourselves as truly soulless, as truly nothing more than complex biological beings? Can a materialistic society, that perceives itself as matter in constant motion, not but see with radical irony such “high-flown” Aristotelian affirmations? Aren’t  WE Aristotelians swimming upstream in this regard? For truly one rarely, if ever, finds the word “soul” being used in philosophical discussions as Ar. uses it, doesn’t one? Isn’t this part of the shock of reading Straussian interpretations for the first time with their constant reference to the soul WITHOUT going into a epistemological/ontological debate of its core importance? And even more dramatically: doesn’t Ar. in one and the same sentence let us see his prudent initial conciliatory note by affirming that this argument is not simply any kind of argument but rather a NOBLE type of argument? Aren’t we faced once again with the intimate relation between ethics, rhetoric and pragmatics? And most dramatically still, does not Ar. HERE seem to equate the ancient WITH those who philosophize? I mean, how further from radical skepticism can one go here? But who exactly are those who have so philosophized? For didn’t just 2 subsection ago Ar. tells us how misguided the presuppositions of Plato were in core themes (against Broadie and Rowe’s  as well as Ostwald’s interpretations that EASILY provide an answer that includes Plato (!)? But then, is he speaking of Anaxagoras? Surely not, for Xenophon speaks of Anaxagoras´s fate, doesn’t he? So WHO then exactly? Hermeneutically letting go almost imprudently of ourselves: isn’t Ar. quietly hinting here to Cicero’s claim that it was Socrates who brought philosophy “back down to the earth”? And finally, don’t we better understand here Strauss´s stunning reference to Plato as being TOO LOUD, in contrast to the masterful rhetorical skills developed by Xenophon? And, thus, isn’t it obvious why Xenophon is not read in academic circles; circles not attuned to the very words of Ar.´s claim at the beginning of this MUCH “less important” subsection?

2)  Besides what is the connection of THIS procedural reference to the very possibility of happiness in humans? If what we have said above is true, then wouldn’t the lack of such procedural understanding imply to a high degree that academy is not perhaps the greatest site for human happiness itself? But wouldn’t this go against the way academics speak of themselves? But leaving this thorny point aside,  how do we KNOW that the person who is happy HARMONIZES with the argument, if we do not know WHO the happy person is, WHAT she does and HOW she lives? And why does Ar., once again, not simply AFFIRM a point but rather pregnantly adds  that happiness is not SUCH and SUCH, but rather, PRETTY MUCH said to be so and so? And what to make about the ensuing list of differing opinions as regards the core element of happiness itself? Is it virtue, or prudence or, wisdom, or an eclectic mix? And why is Ar. again so tentative with regards to the still not developed question of wisdom, qualifying it as he does by saying that it is a “CERTAIN wisdom”? So are there different kinds of wisdom? But then,  which one accords and harmonizes with  the truth? Which one hierarchically orders the whole, so to speak? And those that do not, can we reasonably call them wisdom?  But, how are we to know? How are we to lead our lives without knowing? And fundamentally, how do those that believe it is virtue, get along with those who believe it is wisdom? And those who turn to wisdom, how exactly do they relate to the prudent (primarily remembering Plato’s Third wave of the Republic)? And if the political art as we were told (but later omitted) is the ruling art, then doesn’t it make all the difference if prudence is the ORDERING political virtue par excellence? Moreover, what exactly is the relationship of pleasure to each of these? What is the pleasure of the virtuous, of the prudent, of the wise? And crucially, why clarify the argument by adding “or not without pleasure”? Why exactly is the question of pleasure SO utterly  problematic in relation to the inquiry into the ethical virtues? Briefly, how are altruism and hedonism to get along? CAN they get along? And finally, doesn’t Ar. again seek to provide SOME common ground for the ancient, those who philosophize and those bestowed with high repute? But if those who hold fast to ancient tradition and those who have come to be considered as highly reputable see THEMSELVES as being partially correct, won’t a CRTICAL inquiry into the basis of their most fundamental longings via a rational reconsideration of their primordial framework (to use Taylor’s vocabulary) become ever more difficult? Or, again, is Ar. simply healing a relationship that has gone array between the philosophers of old, and the old who lead the political space in which philosophy alone can be carried out? Doesn´t one have to constantly keep Plato’s Laws in mind here?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




Let us go back again to the good being sought, whatever it might be. For it appears to be one thing in one action or art, another in another: it is different in medicine and in generalship, and so on with the rest. What, then, is the good in each of these? Or is it for the sake of which everything is done? In medicine, this is health; in generalship, victory; in house building, a house; and in another, it would be something else. But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. So as the argument proceeds, it arrives at the same point. But one ought to make this clearer still.

Since the end appears to be several, and some of these we choose on account of something else –for example, wealth, an autos, and the instrumental things generally– it is clear that not all ends are complete, but what is the best appears to be something complete. As a result, if there is some one thing that is complete in itself, this would be what is being sought, and if there are several, then the most complete of these. We say that what is sought for itself is more complete than what is sought out on account of something else, and that what is never chosen on account of something else is more complete than those things chosen both for themselves and on account of this [further end]. The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else.

Happiness above all seems to be of this character,  for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect and every virtue we choose on their own account —for even if nothing resulted from them, we would choose each of them —- but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. But nobody chooses happiness for the sake of these things or, more generally, on account of anything else.

The same thing appears to result also on the basis of self-sufficiency, for the complete good is held to be self-sufficient. We do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political. But it is necessary to grasp a certain limit to these; for if one extends these to include the parents [of parents], and descendants, and the friends of friends, it will go in infinitely. But this must be examined further later on. As for the self-sufficient, we posit it as that which by itself makes life choiceworthy and in need of nothing, and such is what we suppose happiness to be.

Further, happiness is the most choiceworthy of all things because it is not just one among them —and it is clear that, were it included as one among many things, it would be more choiceworthy with the least addition of the good things; for the good that is added to it results in a superabundance of goods, and the greater number of goods is always more choiceworthy. So happiness appears to be something complete and self-sufficient, it being an end of our actions.

But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly. Now, perhaps this would come to pass if the work of the human being should be grasped. For just as in the case of the aulos player, sculptor and every expert, and in general with those who have a certain work and action, the relevant good and the doings of something well seem to reside in the work, so too the same might be held to be the case with a human being, if in fact there is a certain work that is a human being’s. Are there, then, certain works and actions of a carpenter but none of a human being: would he, by contrast, be naturally “without a work”? Or just as there appears to be a certain work of the eye, hand and foot, and in fact of each of these parts in general, so also might one posit a certain work of a human being apart from all of these?

So whatever, then, would this work be? For living appears to be something common even to plants, but what is peculiar to human beings is being sought. One must set aside, then, the life characterized by nutrition as well as growth. A certain life characterized by sense perception would be next, but it too appears to be common to a horse and cow and in fact to every animal. So there remains a certain active life of that which possesses reason, and what possess reason includes what is obedience to reason, on the one hand, and what possess it and thinks, on the other. But since this [life of reason in the second sense] also is spoken of in a twofold way, one must posit the life [of that which possess reason] in accord with an activity, for this seems to be its more authoritative meaning. And if the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason, or not without reason, and we assert that the work of a given person is the same kind as that of a serious person, just as it would be in the case of a cithara player and a serious cithara player, and this would be so in a all cases simply when the superiority in accord with virtue is added to the work; for it belongs to a cithara player to play the cithara, but to a serious one to do so well. But if this is so —and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of the soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with he virtue proper to it —if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete.

But, in addition, in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does on day. And in this way, one day or a short time does not make someone blessed and happy either.

Let the good have been sketched in this way, then, for perhaps one ought to outline it first and then fill it in later. It might seem to belong to everyone to advance and fully articulate things whose sketch is in a noble condition, and time is a good discoverer of or contributor to such things: from these have arisen the advances in the arts too, for it belongs to everyone to add what is lacking.

But we must remember the points mentioned previously as well, to the effect that one must not seek out precision in all matters alike but rather in each thing in turn as accords with the subject matter in question and insofar as is appropriate to the inquiry. For both carpenter and geometer seek out the right angle but in different ways; the former seeks it insofar as it is useful to his work; the latter seeks out what it is or what sort of a thing it is, for he is one who contemplates the truth. One ought to act in the same manner also in other cases to have nobly pointed out the “that” —such is the case in what concerns the principles— and the “that” is the first thing and a principle. Some principles are observed by means of induction, some by perception, some by a certain habituation, and other in other ways. One ought not to go in search of each in turn in the manner natural to them and to be serious about their being nobly defined. For they are of great weight in what follows from them: the beginning seem to be more than half the whole, and many of the points being sought seem to become manifest on account of it. ” (NE, 1097a15-1098b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)


1) Why does one have the feeling in this subsection that Ar. can FINALLY get into the real argument itself? Aren’t the digressions sort of the “hard work” prior to actually engaging in the much more rewarding, even joyful process itself? However, generally speaking, what is the point of an argument that is so strikingly formal in nature? For, aren’t we continuously speaking of happiness WITHOUT actually knowing what Ar. understands by it concretely? How are we to “fill in” this initial formalism; as Ar. himself acknowledges: “But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly”? Presumably when we finish READING the whole of the NE we will be much better prepared to fill it out? As a matter of fact, Ar. points out that ANYONE can fill it out? Isn’t this another example of clear Aristotelian humor? But then, wouldn’t this filling out suffer immensely if one simply SKIPPED parts of the text, as is generally the case with Books III (end) and IV on the moral virtues (seen as a simple apologetics of Greek virtues by a “duped” Aristotle)? And, generally, as well, why does Ar. once again REMIND us of methodological issues at the end of this subsection, and more perplexing still, now NOT calling them a digression? But most importantly, didn’t we already say that the end which hierarchically orders all others, IS that of THE political art? But then why does Ar. have us repeat: “But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else.”? Didn’t we already agree that it was the political art in subsection 3? But if so, why proceed in ways which, at the very least, seriously modify this initial political assumption? Isn’t this why Ar. says that this is a KIND of political inquiry? And further, how exactly are we going to square the public political art and the issue of individual human happiness? Will this question simply be relegated, rather, to the very end of BOOK VIII of the Politics, which ironically deals with a complex discussion of the ideal regime (almost in Platonic terms!)? Nonetheless, doesn’t Ar. want to KEEP quite distinct the investigation into the political and the investigation into the ethical? Isn’t his why he wrote SEPARATE books on these issues?  But, if the general movement is towards a demonstration of the limits of the political life, then: why does Ar. repeat once again here, that in terms of self-sufficiency we must not forget that we are NOT speaking of a solitary human, but rather —and the list is impressive— “what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political” (repeating for us here the famous preliminary claim found in the Politics? However, how does one KNOW that this is so BY NATURE? Didn’t Ar., just a few subsections before, say that the legal appears to be by nomos, rather than by physis? Does he think he need not back up argumentatively this assertion? But isn´t this what philosophy is all about? And further, don’t modern early political theorists REALLY think Ar.  does in fact  need some such backing up? Isn’t this why they BEGIN their political analysis from a radically different starting point, namely, that of the Social Contract? Isn’t THIS the debate which characterizes the American Founding, or more generally the confrontation between Ancient and Modern liberalism/republicanism? Moreover, wouldn’t this be THE key to our misunderstanding Aristotle as moderns? But be this as it may, if Ar. is in fact putting forth a realm beyond the political, how will it come to appear as we proceed along in the argument? And if so, how can one reveal the limits of the political, while simultaneously not destabilizing it? For, isn’t the destabilization of the political THE core point of the previous Aristotelian procedural digressions? And yet, isn’t Ar. pointing towards the possibility that there may appear a tension between the life of personal fulfillment, and the life of the political, of recognition, and of the adamant concern for justice and the power of law? Isn’t this why, in the discussion of friendship in BOOKS VIII and IX, Ar. will point out that the best of true friends do not require justice? Won’t this show up clearly also in the tension between the two peaks of the NE, namely that of the Magnanimous human (megalophuchos) and that of all the virtues covered under justice as akin to the North Star? And besides, surely we know too that Plato never married, and we need only read Xenophon´s humorous Symposium  to hear about Socrates´s ideas regarding “a wife and offspring”, don´t we? (not to mention the discussion of Ischomachus´s wife in the Economics!) Put another way, what finally is the human work (“ergon”) principally about: i) the fulfillment of individual happiness, the city being but a stage for THAT personal fulfillment, or ii) rather, understanding oneself fundamentally as part of a larger whole to which one owes a duty of self-sacrifice (be it the city, or perhaps even beyond, as part of the whole cosmic/divine order)? As assassinated (which is revealing in itself) President Kennedy famously put it; “Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country.”?But, if ——as Ar. has argued—— law seems to be by nomos and not by physis, then how is one to critically see oneself as part of a regime that may turn out badly? How exactly will we differentiate between the good citizen and the good human? And to conclude, why does Ar. waiver back and forth, as we have seen, between these two possibilities? Is he allowing us to think for ourselves the implications either way?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




Now, let us pick up again and —since all knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing —let us state what it is that we say the political art aims at and what the highest of all the goods related to action is. As for its name, then, it is pretty much agreed on by most people; for both the many and the refined say that it is happiness, and they suppose that living well and acting well are the same thing as being happy. But as for what happiness is, they disagree, and the many do not give a response similar to that of the wise. The former respond that it is something obvious and manifest, such as pleasure or wealth or honour, some saying it is one thing, others another. Often one and the same person responds differently, for when he is sick, it is health; when poor, wealth. And when they are aware of their ignorance, they wonder at those who say something that is great and beyond them. Certain others, in addition, used to suppose that the good is something else, by itself, apart from these many good things, which is also the cause of their all being good.

Now, to examine thoroughly all these opinions is perhaps rather pointless; those opinions that are specially prevalent or are held to have a certain reason to them will suffice. But let it not escape our notice that there is a difference between the arguments that proceed from principles and those that proceed to the principles. For Plato too used to raise this perplexity well and investigated, whether the path is going from the principles or to the principles, just as on a racecourse one can proceed from the judges to the finish line or back again. One must begin from what is known, but this has a twofold meaning: there are things known to us, on the one hand, and things known simply, on the other. Perhaps it is necessary for us, at least, to begin from the things known to us. Hence he who will listen adequately to the noble things and the just things, and to the political things generally, must be brought up nobly by means of habituation. For the “that” is the principle, and if this should be sufficiently apparent, there will be no need of the “why” in addition, and a person of the sort indicated has or would easily get hold of the principles. As for him to whom neither of these is available, let him listen to the words of Hesiod:

This one is altogether best who himself understands all things


But good in his turn too is he who obeys one who speaks well.

But he who neither himself understands nor, in listening to another,

takes this to heart, he is a useless man. ” (NE, 1095a14-1095b13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)


1) Why does Ar. proceed in such a STRANGE manner, first telling us that after the previous digression he will get back on track with his own argument regarding the architectonic good of the political art, only to, a few lines later, digress once again (!) (at, “but let it not escape our notice”)? Why is he going about things as he is? Why is he so very hesitant to get to the point, so to speak? What is so crucial about getting things right from the beginning? For surely it seems a sign of prudence and sensitivity towards the actual independence, specially from the philosophical, of the practical sphere, doesn’t it? And isn’t this precisely WHY Ar. has become so relevant to us moderns, children of the Copernican revolution who attempted for centuries to side-step these initial Aristotelian “preludes” or digressions? Because, aren’t WE children of the scientific/technological grid, virtually unaware of such beginnings? Isn’t this why we find in the writings of Husserl the clear example of this procedural history? For, Husserl first wrote a very strange defence of philosophy IN TERMS OF the natural sciences themselves in his weirdly named “Philosophy as Rigourous Science”, only in his later years to back off from such a “kneeling” posture to a defence of a more Aristotelian notion, that of the “life-world” in his last book revealingly entitled The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Philosophy? Isn’t it, then, precisely out of respect for the independence of the practical that Ar. digresses anew, before going back to the argument presented? Doesn’t he have us LISTEN to a defence of the practical political life as AGAINST a certain kind of IMPRUDENT scientific/philosophical undermining of the realm of serious practical human things? Or put yet another way in terms of the history of philosophy, isn’t the young Wittgenstein of the Tractacus also guilty of not having begun in such a prudent way? For, doesn’t his logical attempt give way to the language as a way of life in his much more mature Philosophical Investigations? And much more importantly, in the early history of this constant tension, did not Socrates himself tell us that there came a point in his life in which he too had to undertake a “second sailing” (see, Phaedo), one in which philosophy was brought down from the Heavens to Earth for the very first time in time in philosophical inquiry (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations)? Don´t we see this clearly in Aristophanes´ comic presentation of the early Socrates in his Clouds? And don´t we see it MUCH MORE clearly in Xenophon´s Economics where we are told Socrates saw the need for a radical shift in HIS philosophical undertaking while simply LISTENING to the best of gentlemen, Ischomachus? Isn’t this respect for the dignity of the practical what redefines Socratism —and the whole of classical political philosophy— as against the pre-Socratics and their apolitical concern with the whole? But if so, what are the impending dangers of Heidegger´s and Nietzsche´s urging US to “return” to the PRE-Socratics who themselves did not know of this initial starting point for ethical inquiry? Isn’t this, in part, why Heidegger could not take back his troubling past? Musn’t THIS destabilizing danger, this mocking of logos within the practical sphere, be the one to be confronted HEAD ON (see Pangle ‘s poignant and ironical remarks on Rorty in The Ennobling of Democracy)? And, in Aristotelian terms, isn’t his different attitude from the EE to the NE precisely a similar expression of such a change in procedural outlook as well? Isn’t this THE key to understanding how the EE must be regarded as an earlier, less mature, work (vs. Kenny)?

2) Furthermore, what to make of the appearance of the central term happiness (eudaimonia)? How are we to get clear on the fundamental differences between the ancients´ concern for eudaimonia —which evidently goes beyond a feeling of temporary joy—- and OUR very own notion of the constitutionally defended “pursuit of happiness” (e.g., Constitution of the United States)? Won’t we make a MASSIVE mistake by not seeing the tension in which they stand? For instance, what are we to make of Kant’s very secondary, not so say, dismissive use of the term in his own ethical foundations (see section IV below)? Or, what to make of Locke’s reduction of the term and, crucially, its liberation (by way of redefinition and exclusion) from the Aristotelian moral virtues which will become the core of Ar.´s own argument (difference which is pregnantly developed by Pangle in his The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Visions of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, see section IV below)? And isn’t this equally true of the difference between Ar.’s eudaimonia and Hobbes’s little inspiring felicity (see section IV below)? Isn’t the modern connection quite Anti-Aristotelian in that it DOES NOT believe there is an actual END to our longings? Doesn’t then modern desire –—-and particularly the desire for a certain kind of power that guarantees self-preservation—- lead the way, while reason deforms into mere utilitarianism? Similarly, can one not easily find in the Federalist vs. Anti-federalists debates over the US Constitution, precisely this very same debate on the appearance/delineation of happiness as THE END of the political (see section IV below)? Isn’t this why Brutus is so crucially upset by the unheard of proposals of Hamilton/Madison/Jay (proposals which “won the day”)? And, looking at Ar. more specifically; what exactly does it mean that happiness involves a living well and an acting well? Is living merely the substratum for acting? I mean, do we live simply to act, and specially in a moral sense? Or, in other MUCH more problematic terms, is life simply/exclusively the occasion for the presentation of the moral virtues in their alleged splendour? And if so, how are the moral virtues as the core of acting well, to be related to happiness which is BOTH acting AND living well? For surely, as we have said in our previous commentaries, sometimes the actual performance of certain virtues, such as courage, seems to GO AGAINST living itself as Ar. HIMSELF has pointed out in previous subsections? And, how is this consideration of happiness to be related to the context of the quote we find from Hesiod at the very end of this subsection (see puzzle No. 11 below)?

3) Moreover, why exactly does Ar. first mention two groups, the many (oi polloi, usually used in pejorative terms in Aristotle, see e.g., discusses of democracy in the Politics) and the refined (χαρίεντες; with the connotations of the beautiful, the graceful, the elegant, the courteous and the educated), only lines later to go on to mention a VERY different second pair, namely, the many and the wise? Are we to understand that the refined are to be passed over in silence? Or rather, that the refined are precisely THE most problematic in that they are already to a large extent educated by their society as such? What is one to learn about ethics if one is, to a large extent, ALREADY educated and courteous and graceful and …? And very importantly, what makes one part of the refined: good looks? Elegance? Or more likely, education; but WHICH education? I mean, why would the refined NEED the NE? And, are the refined variable as the just and the noble seem to be? Besides, put in modern terms, wouldn’t Ar. see the refined more in terms of Locke’s virtue of civility? And therefore, being refined —seeing oneself as one of the refined—- doesn’t THAT mean that one must appear to be refined to SOMEONE? Specially to those who are refined as well? But then, IF Ar.´s digressions are precisely to RESPECT some such education, how are we to MOVE beyond its already set parameters of what is beautiful and noble and just? In other words, aren’t we here speaking of the Ischomachus’s –the best of gentlemen (kalos kágathos)—- of our lives (see Xenophon’s crucial Economics)? For, don´t we see in Xenophon’s compelling (though little studied) text how SOCRATES is TRULY SILENT and merely listens to one of the most refined of Athens? Wouldn’t THAT be the respect of the practical sphere that Ar. seeks? But then, how to get the conversation going, so to speak, if Ar. goes on to say that the WHY should not be asked? And as regards the many, what are we to make of those thinkers who see in Ar. the beginning of radical social democracy (Nussbaum)? Aren’t they caught irredeemably in a MODERN LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC framework which has little to learn from Ar. himself? For surely Ar., in quoting Hesiod´s words in this very subsection seems little democratic in spirit, doesn’t he? But more problematic still, Ar. CLEARLY tells us that it is the many who mistakenly hold eudaimonia to be leisure, wealth or honour? But then again, who are these “many”: for surely one would tend to think that the many are the poor and therefore, in political terms, the ones least like to have the potential for honour in political office in particular? Or could it be, but this would be rather problematic given the type of digressions Ar. has made, that the many and the refined, when it comes to the CORE issues, to what truly defines happiness as the end of this “kind of political inquiry”, and more importantly to what truly defines happiness as THE END of the best human life possible simply, are very close to each other? Could it be that the refined and the many turn out to be, in their essence, almost indistinguishable; particularly when compared to/confronted by the wise? And, wouldn’t this allow us to NOT be so surprised once we reach the stunning conclusions of BOOK X? But then again, WHO are the wise? Are our professors the wise as Ar. uses the term? If not, then WHO?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




The inquiry would be adequately made if it should attain the clarity that accords with the subject matter. For one should not seek out precision in all arguments alike, just as one should not do so in the products of craftsmanship either. The noble things and the just things, which the political art examines, admit of much dispute and variability, such that they are held to exist by law alone and not by nature. And even the good things admit of some such variability on account of the harm that befalls many people as a result of them: it has happened that some have been destroyed on account of their wealth, others on account of their courage.

It would certainly be desirable enough, then, if one who speaks about and on the basis of such things demonstrates the truth roughly and in outline, and if, in speaking about and on the basis of the things that are for the most part so, one draws conclusions of that sort as well. Indeed, in the same manner one must also accept each of the points being made. For it belongs to an educated person to seek out precision in each genus to the extent that the nature of the matter allows: to accept persuasive speech from a skilled mathematician appears comparable to demanding demonstrations from a skilled rhetorician. Each person judges nobly the things he knows, and of these he is the judge. He is a good judge of a particular thing, therefore if he has been educated with a view to it, but is a good judge simply if he has been educated about everything. Hence of the political art, a young person is not an appropriate student, for he is inexperienced in the actions pertaining to life, and the arguments are based on these actions and concern them.

Further, because he is disposed to follow the passions, he will listen pointlessly and unprofitably, since the involved end is not knowledge, but action. And it makes no difference at all whether he is young in age or immature in character: the deficiency is not related to time but instead arises on account of living in accord with passion and pursing each passion in turn. For to people of that sort, just as to those lacking self-restraint, knowledge is without benefit. But to those who fashion their longings in accord with reason and act accordingly, knowing about these things would be of great profit.

About the student, and how one ought to accept [what is being said], and what it is that we propose, let these things stand as a prelude.” (NE, 1094b12-1095a13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)


1) Why does Ar. consider it necessary to proceed with his argument by digressing from the main idea of the architectonic good? He surely does not think this is necessary in the EE, does he? Is it because the EE requires a correction born out of Aristotle’s own maturation? Did Ar. apply the very words of this Subsection 3 of the NE to HIMSELF at some point in his life? And why is it that, in comparison, other ethical writers (specially, Kant), as well as other “ethical” books (specially, The Bible) do not see the need to proceed this way? Why does Aristotelianism REQUIRE this beginning? Is it because of ITS particular audience so that getting the audience RIGHT is half the task? Is it because of the central role of rhetoric we spoke of in our earlier commentaries?

2) Moreover, what to make of the craftsmanship example as an analogy for the kind of inquiry Ar. prepares us for? For instance, what does it mean that two craftsmen, 2 shoemakers for instance, make different shoes in terms of their “precision”? In other words, if one of the craftsmen´s product is “more precise” (presumably better), then why should we accept the lesser one’s products? Indeed, why should we accept an ethics on a “lesser” quality, so to speak, IF the craftsmanship analogy holds? In other words, how imprecise is imprecise? Why wouldn’t we seek the BEST inquirer as well? And isn´t that precisely the challenge Ar. gives himself, namely to provide THE model for ethical inquiry to be followed for all times while remaining as close as possible to the nature of its subject matter? Or put in another, much more problematic, way: if the analogy is to hold, who is the “craftsman”/”craftswoman” of souls? And who, FIRST crafted his/her soul to be such?

3) And isn´t this of crucial relevance with regards to what Ar. goes on to argue? Isn’t he saying that the lack of precision is DUE TO a certain relativism as regards the just and the noble, AND a certain relativism with regard to the goods themselves? But then how are we not to despair in terms of reaching the target Ar. has told us at the beginning will lead us beyond a pointless longing? How are we then not to fall into an eternal emptiness of dissatisfaction? Isn´t this the very critique by the early moderns (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, The Federalists) to all classical republicanism and its defenders? Wouldn’t these early modern critiques argue: better not have some, even many, satisfaction(s) than aim too high and lose all human attempts at satisfaction? Will we get some of the answers, or perhaps THE answer as we read along the NE?

4) But much more importantly, what to do about the sudden and surprising reference to the crucial relation mentioned between nomos (law, custom) and physis (what is by nature) as regards the noble and the just things? If nomos is HELD TO BE variable —– for the just and the noble appear to change from one political society to another (so that Quebec’s law 101 would be considered unjust in other provinces in Canada, and Colombia’s obligatory military service would be seen as a encroachment upon individual rights in other countries)—– then how are we to guide our ethical and political lives beyond this relativity? Will it turn out that the NE will provide us with clear guidelines that refer to universal transhistorical physis? And if indeed the NE, in its discussion of natural justice in BOOK V can in fact come up with such practical/theoretical guidelines, how are we moderns —born out of a minimization of the good and of a historical relativization of the good— to actually see or make such guidelines part of OUR very own variable notions of nomos? Or put another way, does natural justice actually exist? And we moderns, born out of the discovery of history, can WE ever hear it? But if not, then are all political societies relative and consequently a hierarchical ordering between them an impossibility? Wouldn´t this run counter to Ar.´s belief that there does exist AN overarching good which allows for a careful yet clear judging amongst societal models? Or rather, should we try to grab hold on to the modern independence of states and the non-interference premise found in international affairs? But then, how does one explain THE FACT that we DO interfere? Is it because the “interveners” have read the NE?And very importantly, if the noble and the just are of the essence, why is it that Ar. will FIRST look at the moral virtues and take up the question of justice solely until BOOK V? Could it be that he is trying to see the moral virtues on their own terms, seeing whether the moral virtues sought for their own sake actually fit the bill of the argument he puts forth in outline from the start?

5) Besides, how are we to understand the example of certain goods as being harmful? Why didn’t Ar. mention this back in subsection 1, making US think of these problems in our very own puzzles; for instance, that war can be quite problematic? Is it because of the rhetorical premisses of the argument? But if so, can rhetoric then not be truly optimistic, but and in the political arena specially, truly endangering? Isn´t this why the good of peace Chamberlain sought, was merely an apparent good, though rhetorically it had a powerful appeal? For, who does not wish for peace? Wouldn’t “Machiavelli” argue something like this? But really how could a good harm one if it is good? Is it because the GOOD is not good always, or rather is it because the good in question IS good but WE are ignorant of its use? Or put another way, how could riches harm one? Is it, as Aquinas tells us, because the rich person can be robbed? But, why doesn’t Ar. say this? Why doesn’t he spell it out in the terms AQ. uses? Or is Ar. getting at something altogether different? Can riches damage YOU independently of being robbed? Can riches damage you because you are unprepared for riches? Isn’t this why Montesquieu defends Sumptuary Laws? For truly our Colombian drug-dealers are rich, aren’t they? And it would be odd to think that they, surrounded by protection, would be actually robbed? Isn´t there a greater chance of MY getting robbed? And if this is problematic, what to say about our commercially oriented modern societies which arise precisely as a CHALLENGE to Aristotelianism (see particularly Montesquieu and Locke)? And, furthermore, what to make of the example of courage? Why does Ar. here CHOOSE this example of a moral virtue and no other? First off, isn’t it the case that all societies ask of the individual not a variable/changeable thing but on the contrary the very SAME thing, namely , to be prepared to DIE for his/her society (be it democratic, theocratic, aristocratic …) if it is actually threatened by a foreign invader (one can recall the images of Stalingrad or read The Red Badge of Courage)? And what exactly is the good of courage? Is courage in fact a VIRTUE, can it be a virtue seen on its own? That is to say, how are we to understand courage independently of its being conceived as a CIVIC virtue, that is to say as focused on the common good? Isn’t Ar. preparing us for the dilemmas involving courage as the first moral virtue to be considered in BOOK III?


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It seems now the time has arrived to put forth, as best as possible, some of the reflections —reflections which have guided me throughout the last few years of my life—– with regards to  Aristotle’s all-important views on the question of happiness as presented in his Nicomachean Ethics. For I take it that it has in fact been this encounter which has sent me on a path which I would have otherwise never encountered.


Which path is this? Negatively speaking, it is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of my/our conceptual possibilities and practical lives. On the one hand, the horizon of our modern liberal democracies grounded precisely on the very critique of Aristotelian political philosophy; particularly as set out in the works of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke and Montesquieu, all of whom to different degrees see Aristotle as THE rival to face and even, literally, to conquer. The realization of this inherent animosity must clearly point to us students how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must actually be to us children of such an anti-Aristotelian modern tradition. For if we ARE as modern democrats defined partly against Aristotelianism, it would be extremely odd that we would easily delude ourselves into believing that Aristotelianism is primarily akin to our own, that is to say, that it is somehow readily accessible and altogether familiar.  We must fight the easy consolation, the very troubling consolation, of assuming that Aristotle is simply “one of us”. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than precisely in the CORE Aristotelian investigation of virtue (areté), and of happiness (eudaimonía); and even more importantly of the complex and perhaps tense relationship which might come to slowly unfold as Aristotle guides us into seeing the puzzling relationships between said virtue(s) and happiness. By way of an example of how easily we disregard Aristotle’s challenge,  we can focus on the fact that many academics STILL continue to hold on to the erroneous view that Aristotle simply enumerated ——because he agreed with implicitly and explicitly—– the Greek virtues set out in Books 3 and 4; an intellectual magical disappearing act which overlooks these books which are PRECISELY the very key to understanding the dynamic and the general course of the Aristotelian argument at its most fundamental! So, we could in fact say that for us modern western democrats  Aristotle is —–at least initially, perhaps even indefinitely—- an Other that challenges our presuppositions, and does so like no Other can or ever will. Obviously then, this commentary objects to the generalized view that Aristotle is somehow solely the founder of a tradition, namely civic republicanism, that can still be seen in much later modern authors which even include Machiavelli. For surely, there is as much oxygen in gaseous form on the moon, as there is Aristotle in Machiavelli. And to make this clear, Machiavelli is certainly very proud of this.

And on the other hand, this is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of revealed religion, fundamentally the tradition of the Bible in both its Judaic and Christian traditions, but also that of the Koran in Islam. Such a horizon finds its grounding not ——-as it does for Aristotle—— in the spirit of free and rational philosophical inquiry on the nature of the political and the ethical, but rather on the persistent obedience due to God in whose all encompassing and mysterious justice, merciful loving grace and creative omnipotence we alone can find THE sole anchoring required for our constantly tepid and all-too-debased sinful humanity. Again, it is the realization of this inherent tension which clearly points to us how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must be to us children of the rise and triumph of revealed monotheism (even if, of course, modern western democracies have in fact, via Locke and Montesquieu, redefined the very framework within which we have come to understand such divine revelation in our days). Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the peak which is the virtue of magnanimity (megalopsuchia), virtue which has as its most deficient extreme, the religious virtue par excellence of humility; for let us be clear, humility is, for Aristotle, a vice simply. Or further, it can be clearly seen in the very fact that the virtue of faith (pistis) is, dramatically —–and to our astonishment as part of a monotheistic tradition—– not even considered one of the virtues to be analyzed in the list of eleven virtues found in the Nicomachean Ethics itself (Evidently, this is NOT to say that Aristotle does not take up the question of the divine continuously in the text, as we shall have occasion to witness). But one could also mention, so that we again come to be taken aback by the very strangeness of Aristotle’s arguments, the inexistence of any serious development of the notion of friendship  (philia) within the Bible; or the initial unflattering status of the political within Genesis itself, Cain being the founder of the first political city which will lead directly, and not metaphorically, to the just destruction of the pretensions of the kind of “magnanimous” arrogance found in  the technological project of Babel. So we must again repeat, as we attempt to follow this new path —–and perhaps to our initial dismay—– that Aristotle once again stands as a kind of Other who questions fundamentally the presuppositions of our thought, or more truthfully and with greater relevance,  the presuppositions of our lives. And that this is so, is extremely fortunate, for realizing his otherness we can thankfully ask: how then could we still remain the same by reading and dwelling upon his strange remarks? Aristotle liberates, and it would seem, some of us are in need of a great liberal education by such dialectically challenging type of friends.

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Si bien es una verdadera propuesta temeraria la de abordar la complejidad de la filosofía kantiana en un espacio tan breve, intentaré al menos esgrimir a continuación los principales puntos que recogen el sentido de la revolución copernicana en Kant. Para Paul Ricoeur, Copérnico posibilita la primera de tres humillaciones que ha sufrido Occidente al descentrar el universo que rotaba alrededor de nuestro privilegiado planeta. Copérnico, tomado como representante del surgimiento de las ciencias naturales, derrumbó las presuposiciones características tanto de la Antigüedad como del Medioevo. Esto es así ya que el surgimiento del método matemático en busca de las verdaderas leyes físicas de la naturaleza, destruyó los fundamentos tanto de las interacciones hermenéuticas del medioevo ––ejemplificadas de manera hermosa por Foucault en Las Palabras y las Cosas—- como de las teleologías naturales de un orden cosmológico jerarquizado fundando sobre la noción del bien platónico. La importancia de Kant radica en que es él quien logra articular e interrelacionar  en sus tres complejas Críticas, referidas respectivamente a los campos de la epistemología, de la ética y del estética, los elementos fundamentales de lo que consideramos como la modernidad. Para dar mayor claridad a esta afirmación, seguiré el siguiente camino de comprensión. Primero desarrollaré esquemáticamente las ideas presentadas en la Critica de la Razón Pura como texto fundamental para la comprensión del impacto de las ciencias naturales en nuestra comprensión de la naturaleza. Luego de dicha presentación plantearé, muy brevemente, algunas criticas dialógicas a los fundamentos kantianos a partir de las filosofías de Husserl y Heidegger. Las dos preguntas que guían el quehacer de la primera sección son: ¿Cómo fundamenta Kant la objetividad científica en el texto?¿Existen acaso presuposiciones no criticadas dentro de la critica kantiana en el desarrollo de su concepción epistemológica? En segundo lugar retomaré las ideas principales de la Metafísica de las costumbres y de la Critica de la Razón Practica conectando el proyecto de la primera sección con el ámbito ético que ahora hace su aparición. Investigaremos los diversos tipos de imperativos kantianos formulando en su presentación algunas críticas al recuperar la visión ética de Aristóteles. Recuperaremos la fortaleza de la concepción de autonomía para la modernidad y de la dignidad de todo ser humano racional, al retomar la reinterpretación habermasiana de Kant. Las preguntas directrices que guiarán el camino a este nivel serán: ¿Cómo defiende argumentativamente Kant la noción de la dignidad inherente a la autonomía moderna fundada sobre la presencia del imperativo categórico?¿Qué presuposiciones cuestionables encontramos a la raíz de una ética fundamentalmente formal y deductiva?




La modernidad se caracteriza en principio por una actitud filosófica que es esencialmente negativa, es decir, es un proceder fundamentalmente desmitificador que busca cuestionar los principales presupuestos de la Edad Media y de  la Antigüedad  Su espíritu dinámico recibe de la critica a toda heteronomía tradicional la fuente de su actividad. El presente se problematiza como nunca antes. Y aun cuando nuestra autocomprensión no se limita al surgimiento de la tendencia  a la matematización del mundo surgida de la revolución copernicana, esta última la tomamos como elemento diferenciador de nuestro horizonte histórico.

En la Crítica de la Razón Pura, Kant asume consecuentemente este  surgimiento y busca a partir de esta realidad incuestionable llevar a cabo un análisis riguroso y sistemático de las consecuencias que dicho aparecer tiene sobre nuestra autocompresión. Comprensión y critica se vuelven una, se motivan mutuamente al buscar explicitar los límites internos de la razón humana. La crítica moderna ––claramente diferenciada del radical cuestionar socrático—- busca esclarecer lo que racionalmente podemos aseverar:

“nuestra época es de manera especial la de la critica. Todo ha de someterse a ella. Pero la religión y la legislación  pretenden de ordinario escapar a la mismas ….. al hacerlo, despiertan contra si mismas sospechas justificadas y no pueden exigirnos respeto sincero”. (CRP 9 Nota k)


En un principio todo esfuerzo se detendrá en un cuestionamiento de la experiencia epistemológica posible, aunque como la anterior cita nos recuerda el camino a recorrer prosigue hacia la ética y la política. Partimos por lo tanto del hecho de que las ciencias modernas están fundadas sobre la experiencia, tal como ya lo reseñaban los empíricos ingleses. Pero intentamos ahora comprender los fundamentos de dicho experienciar característico. Las cuatro causas aristotélicas deben ceder a la preponderancia de la moderna causalidad científica. Para nosotros modernos conocedores ya del método positivo: “no se podría confundir ya la ruta a tomar y el camino que da la ciencia queda iniciado para siempre y con alcance ilimitado (17 CRPu)”. Para Kant, siguiendo a Bacon, incluso la  naturaleza debe ser obligada a responder acerca de sus verdaderas leyes subyacentes.  A su base encontramos en particular la categoría de la causalidad, cuya ejemplificación la encontramos en la ley de la gravedad newtoniana (CRPu 18).  Si la metafísica es todavía posible para nosotros modernos, entonces para Kant debe ella estar fundamentada  en la experiencia posible para nosotros en tanto seres racionales. Error sería caer en las limitaciones de anteriores fundamentaciones que intentaron acceder al ser en cuanto tal olvidándose primero de cuestionar el cómo es posible que se nos de ese ser en la experiencia humana . Para Kant, Platón en particular “no se dio cuenta  de que, con todos sus esfuerzos, no avanzaba nada, ya que no tenía punto de apoyo.” (CRPu 46-47). De un tajo a los diálogos platónicos se les revela, eso cree Kant, su verdadero límite.

¿Qué, más específicamente, nos revela esta crítica revolucionaria? La revolucionaria investigación kantiana  en la primera Crítica revela —–en particular en la Analítica Trascendental complementada posteriormente con la Dialéctica Trascendental—–  que  existen, aparte de nuestra experiencia a través de los sentidos,  formas a priori, como lo es la forma de la ya mencionada causalidad. Éstas formas no se nos dan ellas mismas dentro de la experiencia, pero enigmáticamente también es cierto que es sólo a partir de su presencia que el experienciar es del todo posible.

Estas formas denominadas juicios, están dividas en dos. Por un lado encontramos los juicios analíticos que son universales y necesarios pero que no avanzan en nada nuestro conocimiento. Un ejemplo de estos es el principio de no-contradicción.  Por otro lado hallamos los juicios sintéticos y entre ellos en particular los juicios sintéticos a priori que plantean un verdadero enigma a la razón. Esto se debe a que preceden toda experiencia y sin embargo no son comprensible a partir de la experiencia sensible únicamente. La ciencia moderna se fundamenta en dichos juicios sintéticos a priori. Estos son universales y necesarios, y a diferencia de los analíticos, si avanzan el conocimiento; lo cual es precisamente el objetivo fundamental de la ciencia experimental (CRPu, 44).

La expedición crítica en busca de los fundamentos racionales de dichas categorías, las estructuras universales de la razón que permiten la organización del mundo fenoménico, es la Filosofía Trascendental.  Se aleja ésta tanto del empirismo simplista como del dogmatismo realista al comprenderse como “todo concomimiento que se ocupa no tanto de los objetos, cuanto de nuestro modo de conocerlos” (CRPu, 58; mi énfasis). Las preguntas fundamentales de dicha filosofía trascendental incluyen:¿Cómo es posible la experiencia de objetos reales para nosotros modernos herederos de la ciencia? ¿Con que derecho podemos argumentar racionalmente que nuestro conocimiento realmente hace referencia a objetos “allá afuera”? ¿Cómo puedo constatar racionalmente que mi conocimiento sale de sí y hace posible la objetivación? (CRPu 139).

Brevemente expuesto, para Kant el conocimiento propiamente humano es síntesis de dos troncos: el de la sensibilidad y el del entendimiento (CRPu, 60-61). La integración necesaria entre ambos la articula Kant de manera elocuente: “los pensamientos sin contenidos son vacíos, (y) las intuiciones sin conceptos son ciegas” (CRPu 93). La primera aproximación a la cuestión, realizada en el texto kantiano por la Estética Trascendental nos revela al tiempo y al espacio como las condiciones del intuir en una experiencia posible. En otras palabras son juntas las formas universales a priori de todo experiencia intuitivo.

Del otro tronco, es decir, del entendimiento, se ocupa la Lógica Trascendental. Es allí donde luego de un largo recorrido encontramos las categorías que son definidas como los “conceptos de un objeto general mediante el cual la intuición de éste es considerada como determinada en relación con una de las funciones lógicas del juzgar” (CRPu 128). ¿Cómo aseverar que dichas categorías tienen en realidad validez objetiva, tal y como lo concluye Kant al final de la Deducción Trascendental? (CRPu 139) Sin entrar en los detalles de las síntesis de la aprehensión en la intuición, de la síntesis de la reproducción en la imaginación y de la síntesis del reconocimiento en el concepto,  el fundamental descubrimiento kantiano radica en el descubrimiento subyacente que logra integrar toda síntesis posible.

Al determinar la categoría de la unidad —que la experiencia por si sola no puede garantizar ya que el simple hecho de que la luz solar cambia constantemente cambia por ende la percepción de cualquier objeto real—– reconozco que en ya en mi como ser humano racional hay una unidad que no es propiamente la misma de la categoría en cuestión. Esta unidad original, que logra integrar los troncos de la sensibilidad y del entendimiento, es precisamente aquella que permite la utilización de la categoría particular de la “unidad” (y claro, de toda otra categoría subsiguiente). ¿Qué unidad es ésta tan peculiar? Para Kant esta  unidad es la unidad fundamental de la conciencia pura trascendental, es la unidad de la apercepción,  de la autoconciencia. Aquello que Descartes no pudo explicitar referente al cogito logra en Kant una más profunda demostración. La unidad de la subjetividad trascendental hace posible la experiencia misma: “el entendimiento puro constituye pues, en las categorías, la ley de unidad sintética de TODOS los fenómenos, y es lo que hace así primordialmente posible la experiencia” (CRPu 150). Sin ella seríamos incapaces de organizar el mundo de una manera tal que lo podamos conocer, y sobretodo conocer científicamente. La autoconciencia  para Kant hace posible el mundo  humano y el entendimiento en particular es por lo tanto “él mismo la legislación de la naturaleza ….. sin él no habría naturaleza alguna, esto es, unidad sintética y regulada de lo diverso de los fenómenos” (CRPu 149). 

Kant mismo nos provee con un ejemplo al mencionar la posible unidad de un perro cualesquiera. En la síntesis conceptual que elaboramos en tanto seres lingüísticos  reconocemos ya no un perro contingente derivado de la percepción —- pues, ¿qué características de la percepción determinan lo que ha de contar como perro si los perros entre si son tan diversos, para no mencionar las características diferenciadores con por ejemplo un zorro?—– sino el concepto de perro mismo.  Sin entrar en detalles, las diversas síntesis que culminan en la síntesis conceptual  generan “una regla conforme a la cual mi imaginación es capaz de dibujar la figura de un animal cuadrúpedo en general sin estar limitado a una figura particular que me ofrezca la experiencia, ni a cualquier posible imagen que pueda reproducir en concreto (CRPu 184).”


Es gracias al esquematismo trascendental que lo que es fundamentalmente heterogéneo logra su síntesis. Puede haber así una trascendencia de la intuición al concepto y un trascendencia del concepto a la intuición. ¿Y cómo más precisamente surge este esquematismo tan maravilloso? Aquí Kant reconoce lo que el proyecto crítico está llamado a reconocer, sus propios límites:

“el esquematismo del entendimiento constituye un arte oculto en lo profundo del alma humana. El verdadero funcionamiento de este arte, difícilmente dejará la naturaleza que lo conozcamos y difícilmente lo pondremos al descubierto” (CRPu 185) 


Si bien el proyecto no ha logrado dilucidar la raíz fundamental de la capacidad para poder argumentar en favor del real acceso a objetos y eventos externos, para Kant se ha logrado sentar las bases para una metafísica posible moderna. El camino arduo de la Analítica Trascendental abre la posibilidad de un viaje aún más intrépido en de la Dialéctica Trascendental; espacio en el que las cuestiones propiamente humanas, las de la ética, la política y la religión han de enfrentarse de manera novedosa. La capacidad poética kantiana surge como un iceberg dentro de su poco poética obra al considerarse el territorio del entendimiento puro como una isla rodeada “por un océano ancho y borrascoso, verdadera patria de la ilusión donde algunas nieblas y algunos hielos que se deshacen prontamente produc(en) la apariencia de nuevas tierras y engañan una y otra vez con vanas esperanzas al navegante ansioso …”. La libre autonomía moderna ––aquel fundamento de la Ilustración en búsqueda de una real mayoría de edad— puede ahora si, según Kant, navegar sobre las bases de un más sólido barco.


Pero la crítica por su propia naturaleza no acaba, su proyecto es fundamentalmente un proyecto sin fin. Por ello cabe referirse brevemente a las criticas  presentes en la obras de Husserl y Heidegger. Para Husserl, en particular en algunos apartados de su obra madura Crisis de las Ciencias Europeas y la Fenomenología Trascendental,  encontramos múltiples cuestionamientos acerca de las presuposiciones kantianas. Entre ellos cabe resaltar la incapacidad de Kant para radicalizar su propia perspectiva y así cuestionar los fundamentos de su pensamiento. La fenomenología husserliana —que conoce ya de los descarrilamientos de la tecnología y de la política liberal en el siglo XX— logra comprender que antes que la subjetividad trascendental científica encontramos la subjetividad precientífica cotidiana.  Se revelan así las bases de la razón instrumental y su intento por monopolizar todo el campo de la razón y del ser. Para Husserl “lo realmente primero es la intuición meramente subjetiva-relativa de la vida mundana precientífica.” (128 CCEFT). La aparente universalidad del proyecto kantiano comienza a revelarse como un proyecto culturalmente remitido a la historia de Occidente.

Pero a su vez ésta radicalización de la cuestión trascendental en Kant, encuentra a su vez una revolucionaria crítica en la importante obra de Heidegger. En primer lugar, en su  Kant y el problema de la Metafísica argumenta  él, planteando ideas de Ser y Tiempo, que la CRPu es el primer intento serio sobre la posibilidad interna de la ontología y no simplemente un investigar epistemológico. Pero es en Ser y Tiempo  en donde la cuestión trascendental da paso a la reformulación del ser humano en cuanto Dasein, ser cuya característica ontológica principal es la de ser-en-el-mundo. El proyecto trascendental inmerso dentro de la dicotomía epistemológica sujeto-objeto da paso a una novedosa postura ontológica sobre la pregunta del ser que revela las peligrosas presuposiciones de la matematización de la naturaleza.



La Critica de la Razón Pura  abre para Kant la posibilidad de discutir sobre bases firmes el problema de la libertad humana.  Aquello  que no deja de asombrarnos al considerar la idea de la libertad es que, siendo un idea de la razón, su fortaleza se despliega en nuestro actuar en el mundo practico-cotidiano. La tercera Antinomia de la razón nos revela que sólo en tanto que nos percibimos a nosotros mismos como seres libres, es decir, como seres que originan cadenas causales que en sí mismas no son causadas, entramos de lleno al ámbito moral.

En el segundo capítulo de la Fundamentación de la Metafísica de las Costumbres (FMC), Kant se cuestiona principalmente sobre la posible existencia de diferentes tipos de imperativos que sirvan como fundamento para la comprensión de nuestra acción ética. Le interesa a Kant preguntarse en particular por la posibilidad de que los seres humanos puedan acceder en su práctica a un modo de ser más allá de lo que “es” simplemente, para así afirmar el “deber ser” en cuanto tal. La lectura de Kant nos incita a preguntarnos: ¿No habrá un modo de ser en el que todo ser humano va más allá de lo que es para afirmar el deber ser en cuanto tal? ¿No habrá una instancia en la que como individuos se nos revele un fundamento universalizable que compartimos con todo otro ser racional? ¿Existirá entre los diversos tipos de imperativos alguno  que logre llevarnos más allá de nuestra subjetividad contingente hacia la ley moral universalizable, sin que por eso deje de ser aquello que es universalizado mi propia máxima autónoma? Una respuesta afirmativa a estas preguntas es aquella que para la filosofía práctica kantiana permitiría abrir el espacio moral fundado en un autonomía racional incondicionada. Si esta respuesta es posible hay pues un elemento que entrelaza lo aparentemente inconmensurable; por un lado mi máxima subjetiva contingente, y por otro, la ley moral objetiva válida para todo ser racional.

            Pero además la distinción entre los diferentes imperativos que el segundo capítulo de la Fundamentación propone analizar, tiene como fin primordial la separación clara e indisoluble del ámbito de lo no-moral, y de su contraparte, la esfera propiamente moral. En la filosofía kantiana sólo existe una posible relación entre ambos ámbitos; el de la negatividad. El primer tipo de imperativos, a saber, los  imperativos hipotéticos tienen como esfera de acción la no-moralidad. Su formulación es tan solo posible en términos de medios y fines que nos representamos a nosotros mismos al plantearnos una proposición cuya forma es: si “x”, entonces “y”. Como lo formula Habermas a este nivel “se trata de una elección racional de los medios ante fines dados o de la ponderación racional de los fines ante preferencias existentes” (8).

            En particular los consejos de la sagacidad tienen como fin un objetivo claro, el de la felicidad. Pero debido a que para Kant este concepto surge del juego de la imaginación subjetiva, pertenece por lo tanto al ámbito de lo empírico, de lo sensible y de lo contingente. En consecuencia, tanto los medios que busco para realizar mi felicidad, como la definición misma de lo que yo considero  ha de ser lo característico de un ser humano feliz, no pueden ser ninguno de los dos universalizados. Para Habermas hay aquí un paso fundamental hacia un nuevo uso de la razón, más allá de los imperativos técnicos básicos. Surge un uso ético pues la razón practica “no sólo aspira a lo posible y lo adecuado a fines, sino también a lo bueno, se mueve, si seguimos el uso de lenguaje clásico, en el terreno de la ética (10).” Si bien la propia división kantiana no explicita los consejos de la sagacidad en estos términos, la visión habermasiana puede darnos una ampliación del área de posible aplicación de dichos consejos.

Sin embargo nos preguntamos, ¿por qué detenernos brevemente en dichos imperativos hipotéticos, y no simplemente dejar de mencionarlos para entrar de lleno en los famosos imperativos categóricos kantianos? La pausa surge precisamente porque cabría plantear ciertas implicaciones comparativas si nos remitimos momentáneamente a la ética aristotélica. Al argumentar Habermas que a este nivel no hemos llegado aún al ámbito propiamente moral, ¿no se hace evidente que para él la ética de Aristóteles tan sólo logra llegar al nivel del imperativo hipotético de la sagacidad kantiano, siendo esta limitación afortunadamente subsanada gracias al moderno proyecto moral kantiano?. Si esto fuese así sin duda implicaría forzar la ética aristotélica a un molde que le es altamente desconocido e inconmensurable. Para Aristóteles la felicidad es de hecho el bien supremo, el telos mismo del quehacer ético; pero no por ello bajo su concepción se debe entregar la noción de felicidad a un relativismo subjetivista incuestionado. Y esto se debe precisamente a que los puntos de partida de la investigación ética de Aristóteles y de la investigación moral para Kant son altamente irreconciliables. Para el primero “el punto de partida es el hecho; y si esto es  suficientemente claro, no habrá necesidad de asegurar por qué? (Ética Nicomáquea I *4 1095b13). En contraste, para el filósofo alemán “es muy reprobable el tomar las leyes relativas a lo que se debe hacer de aquello que se hace, o bien limitarlas en virtud de este último” (CRPu 312). Y dicha diferenciación, brevemente anotada, cobra su verdadero valor en el contexto de la filosofía de Charles Taylor quien intenta recuperar una noción del bien como fundamento de la moral en su Sources of the Self y al hacerlo revela el empobrecimiento surgido al reducir el campo moral, como lo hace Habermas, a una realidad procedimental en vez de substantiva. (Taylor, 85) 

Pero dejando de lado este cuestionamiento crucial para comprender el fundamento mismo del proceder kantiano, debemos ahora entrar a considerar  el segundo tipo de imperativo existente. Entramos sólo ahora al ámbito de lo moral al considerar el famoso imperativo categórico. Al abordar dicho ámbito y dicho imperativo no pueden entrar consideraciones que conciernen nuestras inclinaciones naturales, nuestra sensibilidad, o nuestras situaciones personales contingentes. Es así como en un primer momento nos dice Kant que ni podemos ejemplificar dicho imperativo, ni tampoco saber realmente si nuestra acción fue realmente acorde a su formulación. Lo que nos interesa es pues la forma del imperativo. El imperativo categórico está caracterizado como una proposición sintética, practica y a priori. Es a priori en tanto que no buscamos su inducción a partir de experiencias éticas particulares. Es práctica ya que la forma , fundada sobre la idea de la libertad, nos lleva a actuar en la esfera de la vida cotidiana. Finalmente es sintética debido a que  logra ser el puente entre el principio subjetivo del obrar —mi acción particular a partir de mi máxima individual— y el principio objetivo de la acción, a saber, la ley moral. A diferencia de los consejos de la sagacidad, así hayan sido reinterpretados por Habermas como abriendo el campo de la ética,  sólo hasta ahora llegamos propiamente al ámbito universal de la moral.  Dicho imperativo nos permite ir mas allá del relativismo cultural y personal al hacer factible una comunicación intersubjetiva y transcultural pues se pueden garantizar estándares mínimos que han de guiar la discusión misma. Por ello para Habermas en su movimiento reinterpretativo:

“solo en la radical liberación de las historias vitales individuales y de las formas de vida particulares se hace valer el universalismo del respeto equitativo para todos y la solidaridad con todo lo que posee rostro humano (22).


Dejamos atrás la limitada perspectiva enfocada en el bien y entramos de lleno en el ámbito de la justicia. No quiere decir esto, claro está, que las dos sean mutuamente excluyentes. Por el contrario mis máximas pueden ser vistas tanto desde el punto de vista ético o del  moral, pero el cambio de perspectiva lleva consigo maneras diferentes de plantearse y de intentar resolver preguntas que se da a si misma la razón práctica. Pero más importante aún, la ganancia propia del proyecto moderno es precisamente la de colocar como fundamento discursivo el ámbito de la justicia universal. (Habermas, 13).

Sin embargo ya retornando a la obra de Kant de repente nos topamos  con los párrafos más paradójicos que hemos de encontrar en ella. Esto se debe a que Kant nos ha dicho incesantemente a lo largo de nuestra lectura que el fundamento del deber ser no es ejemplificable; si algo, es formulable. Pero como si estuviese negando su propio proceder, Kant a continuación nos entrega cuatro ejemplos debidamente clasificados entre deberes perfectos e imperfectos.  Al observar dicho proceder nos llenamos de dudas:  ¿Acaso encuentra aquí el formalismo en tanto método deductivo de la moral su gran límite dado que pareciera haber una tensión irremediable entre la forma del deber y la posibilidad de que éste sea principio de la acción moral en la vida real cotidiana en la cual  me veo enfrentado a complejas situaciones existenciales? ¿Por qué se nos dan estos cuatro ejemplos tan particulares que no puede hacer justicia a la diversidad de  situaciones humanas?

Más precisamente el segundo deber perfecto  habla de mi relación con los demás seres humanos. Es este ejemplo, considerado como un deber perfecto en tanto que yo no podría siquiera pensar el quebrantar el juego lingüístico del prometer (para usar terminología contemporánea) utilizando como pretexto mis circunstancias particulares. Si lo hiciera reinaría entonces, para Kant, el egoísmo universal. Comprendida dicha acción en términos de la tradición política del contrato social, se quebrantaría irremediablemente dicho contrato y caeríamos en un estado de guerra si seguimos a Hobbes, o en un estado natural apolítico si seguimos a Locke. Sin embargo, siguiendo la premisa aristotélica que nos dice, “es propio del hombre instruido buscar la exactitud en cada materia en la medida en que la admite la naturaleza del asunto” (1094b 23-25), es más o menos sencillo encontrar contraejemplos a dicha ejemplificación supuestamente categórica. Un padre  prometería lo que fuese a un instituto de salud, con tal que su hijo sea tratado rápidamente.

Pero igualmente oímos  el reclamo kantiano ante tal ejemplificación; aun cuando hemos de recordar que fue Kant mismo quien problematizó su posición al verse necesitado de ejemplos. Kant nos preguntaría a su vez, ¿cómo fundar  una moral que valga para todo ser humano, proyecto de universabilidad característicamente moderno, si no podemos regular categóricamente nuestra actuar?¿Hemos de simplemente caer en la inconmensurabilidad de culturas y tradiciones sin poder encontrar criterios objetivos para juzgar una respecto de las otras?

Afortunadamente existe otro camino para recuperar la fortaleza del imperativo categórico kantiano. Si la primera formulación del imperativo categórico nos deja con un sentimiento de vacío y lejanía, algo en las palabras de Kant nos motiva a continuar con la lectura de su compleja obra. La razones comienzan a revelarse al comenzar a reconocer que la idea de la libertad es fundamento no de nuestro conocimiento, sino de nuestra práctica diaria; los mandatos categóricos no revelan simplemente un listado a memorizar. Ellos son la posibilidad misma del actuar moral propiamente humano, de un actuar que racionalmente pueda considerarse a si mismo como autónomo y libre. ¿Qué, entonces, dentro del formalismo kantiano nos lleva a actuar bajo preceptos morales universalizables? Para encontrar una respuesta a esta pregunta debemos releer una de las últimas formulaciones del imperativo categórico que nos dice: “obra de tal modo que uses a la humanidad, tanto en tu persona, como en la persona de cualquier otro siempre como un fin al mismo tiempo y nunca como un medio.”

Aquello que  me lleva a actuar  moralmente en tanto ser racional es la idea de la dignidad que me permite ser conciente de mi ser como llamado a configurar una vida que tenga como eje central de realización el proyecto de la autonomía. La voluntad moderna no puede buscar leyes externas como fundamento a su carácter moral.  Es en tanto que ésta busca autolegislarse, que cobra sentido hablar de una actividad realmente libre. Vivir cobijado por la realidad del imperativo categórico revela una actividad autónoma  en la que en la plenitud de mi libertad me doy a mi mismo la ley. Pero esa voluntad,  que puede querer objetivar su máxima subjetiva en ley universal, sabe además que la posibilidad de una real autonomía implica un reconocimiento de los demás seres humanos considerados como focos de expresión racional. Soy movido por el imperativo categórico a darme una ley para todos al entrever aquel asombro que me colma cuando reflexiono sobre la dignidad de lo que esencialmente soy como ser humano. Dicha reflexión me abre al descubrimiento en mi de una facultad, la razón, que me posibilita acceder a esta preciada idea de la libertad. Nos motiva por lo tanto la exigencia de vivir una vida acorde a nuestra  racionalidad como condición necesaria para intentar lograr la “mayoría de edad” ilustrada. En palabras del propio Kant:

“la razón refiere pues, toda máxima de la voluntad como  universalmente legisladora, a cualquier otra voluntad y también a cualquier acción consigo misma, y esto no en virtud de otro motivo práctico, o en vista de algún provecho futuro, sino por la idea de la dignidad de un ser racional que no obedece a ninguna otra ley que aquélla que se da a si mismo.” (FMC).



En conclusión para Kant — y esto no deja  por un instante de ser problemático – luego de sentar las bases epistemológicas de una metafísica que logre incorporar el sentido de la revolución copernicana, podemos adentrarnos en el ámbito de la fundamentación moral universal. Los seres humanos adquirimos nuestro verdadero valor en tanto que afirmamos incondicionalmente nuestra racionalidad práctica, marca diferenciadora respecto a todo otro ser viviente. Dicha afirmación, más allá del ámbito pragmático-ético para usar los términos de Habermas, hace a todo ser racional digno de participar continuamente en un modo de ser más allá de su ser natural, a saber,  el modo de ser del deber ser cuya manifestación debe darse en mi práctica cotidiana contingente.





a) Kant, Immanuel. Critica de la Razón Pura. Ediciones Alfaguara 1988. Traducción de Pedro Ribas.

b) Kant, Immanuel. Fundamentación de la Metafísica de las Costumbres. Editorial Porrua. Traducción de Manuel García Morente.

c) Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s Political Writings. Cambridge University Press, 1985. pgs 54-61 “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”. Traducido al  inglés por N.H. Nisbet.

d) Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Macmillan, 1987. Traducida por Lewis White Beck.

e) Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics Bobbs-Merrill,  1985. Traducida por Lewis White Beck.

f) Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason, Bobbs-Merrill, 1983. Traducida por Lewis White Beck.




a) Habermas, Jürgen. “Acerca del Uso Ético, Pragmático y Moral de la Razón Práctica”. En Filosofía (revista de posgrado de la Universidad de Los Andes) , n.1. abril 1990, Mérida, Venezuela pg. 5-24.

b) Taylor, Charles. “Kant’s Theory of Freedom”, en Philosophical Papers 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Cambridge 1988. pgs 318-339.

c) Heidegger, Martin. Kant y el Problema de la Metafísica, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986, pgs 1-107. Traducido por Greb Roth.

c) Husserl, Edmund. Crisis de las Ciencias Europeas y la Fenomenología Trascendental, Numerales 25-34, pgs. 96-138. Folios Ediciones, 1984 . Traducido por Hugo Steinberg.

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In order to try to better understand the different ways in which the moral virtues are exhibited and understood, on the one hand, by the person pursuing the theoretical life, and on the other, by the one who seeks the practical life, I propose to briefly look at the specific moral virtue of courage as understood by Aristotle.

A) Practical Courage and Its Complexities

In a lengthy section of Book III, Aristotle lays out his basic tenets regarding courage. The courageous, in order to truly exhibit her virtue, must know what she is doing, choose it for its own sake, and do so from a fixed and permanent disposition (1105b33). Moreover, her choosing involves aiming at the mean lying between rashness and cowardice as determined rationally by the prudent man (1107a1).

Practically speaking, the truly courageous are those who face the greatest terrors that humans can face, those of the battlefield where the dangers are “greatest and most glorious” (1115a30). City-states honour their dead; presumably then we would expect Aristotle to base the choosing of courageous actions as the means to the, more important, survival of the community by safeguarding the conditions for the common good. But Aristotle wants instead to investigate the viability of choosing the moral life for ITS own sake, not for anything external to it (only later to be considered under the banner of justice). This is the reason why for Aristotle civic courage, though the most akin to moral courage, is not quite it. The civically courageous yearns to receive something in return for what she knows involves the greatest of self-sacrifices, death. What moves her to act is truly something outside the action itself, namely the honour bestowed on those who are remembered as martyrs of the community. Now, if the greatest courage involves death in the battlefield, and such actions cannot be grounded on one’s own love of one’s country, then one is puzzled and led to ask, what precisely is the courageous rationally choosing, in choosing to die for its own sake?

According to Aristotle, having negatively characterized what courage is not, it should not be difficult to grasp what courage actually is (1117b22). But, if our target is that of happiness, at the core of which lie the moral virtues in a complete life (1101a16), and which is pleasant in itself because virtuous actions are pleasant in themselves (1199a14), it looks as though courage as virtue stands quite at odds with such a goal.

Aristotle tells us that the pleasurable in courage lies in the end obtained, just as boxers who receive punches, but in the end gain glory (if they win). So, and if the analogy holds, the courageous human will endure death and wounds “because it is a fine thing OR because it is a disgrace not to” (1117b8). (The ‘or’ revealing the tension between choosing it for its own sake, or for something else).

In the case of the happy human the conflict reaches its peak for his life is pleasurable and supremely worth living; “he will be distressed at the thought of death” (1117b10). However, as morally virtuous, she will choose, and more bravely than any other, to give up his life “because in preference to these blessings he chooses a gallant end in war” (1117b14)

B) Contemplation and courage

In Book X, *6, Aristotle reminds us that happiness involves activity chosen for its own sake; in it nothing is required beyond the exercise of the activity. (1176b9). Strikingly, it seems he still maintains that happiness consists in activities in accordance with virtue (1177a9, reminding us of 1098a16 in BK. I).

Chapter *7 therefore is quite illuminating in that it points to a reconsideration of the possibility of human happiness through the activity of contemplation; the “highest virtue” in us corresponding to the best in us (1177a12). Not only is this activity the most continuous, the most perfect and self-sufficient, one seeking no end beyond itself, but that which is most akin to the divine. The gods are the supremely happy beings, and we ought therefore to aim, not simply at living according to mortal thoughts, but instead, “so far as in us lies, to put on immortality” (1177b33).

Herein lies “the perfect happiness of man” (1177b33), not simply the secondary kind of “happiness” associated to the actions of the morally minded human. Politics and warfare (courage being as central virtue to both), lack the necessary leisure (1177b9) and are chosen for something external to themselves (1177b16). Moreover, all the virtues cataloged by the morally minded, are unworthy of the gods (1178b15), who instead are dearest to those engaging in the contemplative life (1179a28).

Given all this, in the case of a courage demanding situation, how will the contemplative human act? Will he run away leaving his friends and the city which is worthy of defending? Will he not seek to preserve himself instead?

Although the contemplative human is the most self-sufficient, he can practice contemplation by himself, Aristotle is quick to point out that “he does it better with the help of fellow-workers” (1177a33). Besides, like the moral human, the contemplative is in need of external necessities such as that of a healthy body (1178b31), and friends (1170b12). But in excess these can even become a hindrance (1178ba). Aristotle quotes both the man of practical affairs (Solon) and the man of wisdom (Anaxagoras) as agreeing on the  limited importance of such external accessories. The happy human might turn out to be “an oddity in most people’s eyes, because they judge from outward appearances” (1179a12). But how precisely would this human regard courageous action? Who could be such a courageous human?

Perhaps one ought to consider a being such as Socrates whose courage was displayed both in words and in deeds. He was courageous, not only in the battlefield, where particularly in retreat he shone like no other in the defense of his worth-while city and worth-while friends (Symp. 220 , Laches 181b), but also in the world of the struggle for articulation and clarification. The contemplative Socrates tries to get clearer on the nature of courage in the Platonic Laches. Although the dialogue seemingly ends in Socratic aporia, for he tells us “what I don’t advise is that we allow ourselves to remain in the same condition we are now” (201a), it carries the seeds to move beyond aporia in the very picture of Socrates. Socrates’ quest is one of self-understanding and courageous questioning of his and other’s way of life. Socrates will fight, but he will do so nowhere better than in the realm of understanding. Perhaps even deaths will follow and new re-births from a wise human who leads us “into giving an account of (our) present life-style and of the way (we have) spent it in the past” (187e). However, unlike Socrates, Aristotle, whose work so questions us while at the same time aiding us in clarifying our perplexities, did not choose the hemlock.

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One of the main reasons why an understanding of the relationship between ‘natural right’ and ‘conventional right’ must be high in the hierarchy of activities we engage in, lies in that its consideration brings to light the difficult issues of relativity between, and criticality of, different political communities. The extremely compressed passage in which Aristotle takes up this relationship is full of difficult lines, lines which are themselves enlightened by sometimes perplexing examples. In it, one could say, Aristotle seems to move back and forth from one kind of right to the other; uncomfortably trying to delineate the space which lies between them.

The tension between both kinds of right leads to an array of difficult questions which come to light precisely out of the opposition in which they stand. On the one hand, if political justice is wholly conventional, one is necessarily led to ask; is it not then doomed to be variable to the extent that, what a given community considers to be just, is just as valid as what any other does? Will the question of justice not be reduced to a prior question, namely, ‘whose justice’ are we speaking of; justice becoming then a relative term? This is more problematic because if, as Aristotle holds, law shapes our very being, then, “stepping aside” to critically assess the regime which seeks to foster precisely its own outlook, seems a rather difficult, if not impossible, course of action. In other words, if one’s tradition determines to a large extent what one considers to be just, how is it possible for “us” to reach some kind of ‘objective’ standpoint from which our own and other conventional conceptions of right can be judged? Must tolerance be reduced to a passive acceptance of difference, independent of the ethical considerations and violations underlying such diversity?

On the other hand, if one holds onto a natural view of political justice, then although one can claim to be able to assess all conventional right by measuring it to a common ground, a standard to which all political communities have access in virtue of something common to all humans (e.g. rationality), still the position is not itself without difficulties. First of all that ‘common something’ seems contested by the different traditions themselves. But besides this, if all perspectives can be assessed by way of this standard, still, how to figure out and agree upon what is the fundamental nature of such standard is by all means not an easy task. Is it grounded on a transcendental ideal to which only few have access? Is it to be found in the natural order of things? Does it follow alone from divine revelation? Is it ultimately, particularly for us moderns, simply a matter of promoting and defending some group of basic inalienable human rights and duties (perhaps to be supplemented by different kinds of group differentiated rights for minorities)? Or, if it is indeed based on a distinctively human capacity such as reason, how is one to conceive of this rationality —- be it that of classical thought or that of the Enlightenment—— other than by acknowledging it as part of a specific tradition which has come to understand itself in such ‘rational’ terms? What guarantee do we have that when assessing other cultures by way of some form of natural right, we are not simply, though disguisedly, projecting the values of our own? Finally, what is the relationship between philosophy, born out of a particular tradition, and the search for this critical space in which the city, and all cities for that matter, come to be questioned? (*1)

The complexity and importance of the issue under consideration is well put by Strauss:

“If there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society, we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that ideal. But the mere fact that we can raise the question of worth of the ideal of our society shows that there is something in man that is not altogether in slavery to his society, and therefore, that we are able and hence obliged to look for a standard with reference to which we can judge the ideals of our society as well as any society” (NRH, 3) (*2)

To question is part of our nature, but indeed it would be rather absurd to try to answer all these mind-boggling puzzles in a short essay like this. Nevertheless they stand as avenues that can be pursued, some of which we will begin to pursue here only tentatively. But before proceeding, I would like to make two cautionary remarks. The first deals with the idea that whatever conception of natural right is ultimately available to us moderns, its grounding cannot proceed from the imitation of a given hierarchical ordering of a purposeful universe which we admire in its beauty and inherent goodness; an external teleological reality which, by shaping ourselves according to it, allows our own human beauty and goodness to flourish. Nature for us moderns is not a mirror we model ourselves upon. As Charles Taylor puts it with respect to the creative imagination found in art’s capacity to transfigure reality:

“it becomes possible for us to see a crisis of affirmation as something we have to meet through a transfiguration of our vision, rather than simply through a recognition of some objective standard of goodness. The recovery may have to take the form of a transfiguration of our stance towards the word and the self, rather than simply the registering of external reality” (SotS, 448) (*3)

The second prefatory point is that, even though the search for such a ‘objective’ standpoint ——-which is somehow or other implied in the notion of natural right—– is of great importance in judging and differentiating unjust regimes, as well as individuals, from just ones, that this ‘natural’ standard can ultimately be found is another matter altogether:

“our aversion to fanatical obscurantism must not lead us to embrace natural right in a spirit of fanatical obscurantism. Let us beware of the danger of pursuing a Socratic goal with the means, and the temper of Thrasymachus. Certainly the seriousness of the need of natural right does not prove that the need can be satisfied” (Strauss, NRH, 6) (*4)

Having said this, and in order to get somewhat clearer on the relationship between conventional and natural right, I would like to divide the essay into two sections. In the first I will look at the difficult and compressed passage in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle deals directly with the subject matter; chapter seven of the Book on Justice. There I will try to follow Aristotle’s own struggle with the issue by looking and trying to elucidate, as far as possible, the arguments and examples given to us readers. In the second section I will take up two of the most prominent interpretations of the passage; one by Saint Thomas Aquinas, the other by Marsilius of Padua. I will there try to, briefly and in outline, show that neither does justice in their reinterpretation to the complexities found in the first section where the text by Aristotle was considered. To conclude this section, I will likewise question some of the arguments put forward by Strauss in his search for a middle road between these conflicting interpretations.


Aristotle is the first to point out that when speaking of the just, one can do so in many ways. For instance one can consider, either general justice (1129b12 ff.), or a part of this general form, that is to say, particular justice and its distributive and corrective aspects. Some even speak of justice in terms solely of the relation of the parts of the soul and its health (1138b1 ff). Furthermore, one can speak of justice with reference to the different domains in which relationships between agents take place. In this sense political justice is not the same as the justice appropriate to the household; relations between citizens, for Aristotle, are not the same as those of inferior kind that hold between husband and wife, master and slave, and father and son (MM, 1194b5 ff.). (*5)

Besides, it is not just any social organization which meets Aristotle’s criteria for being considered political. This is why in the chapter immediately preceding the one dealing with the relationship between conventional and natural right, Aristotle points out the conditions for the politically just. It

“obtains between those who share a life for the satisfaction of their needs as persons free and equal … hence in the associations where these conditions are not present there is no political justice between members, but only a sort of approximation to justice” (1134a26-8)

This seems rather puzzling. We have not even begun to attempt to determine what natural right might be, and yet Aristotle has already set up a criteria for the consideration of the political, namely, equality and freedom between participants who share at the same time in being ruled and ruling (1134b16-19). Now, if political justice develops under these conditions, and if it is true that “if anyone wants to make a serious study of the fine and just things, or of political science generally, he must have been well trained in his habits” (1095b2-4), then truly few regimes will be able to carry out such an inquiry, namely those in which such equality and freedom already exists, in some sense or other. Presumably a tyranny could not then reflect on the politically just precisely because the conditions for its appearance are in it wholly lacking. But let us look closer then at this very specific type of justice, that is to say, political justice.

In the Magna Moralia, even though one finds the bipartite differentiation between the just things, on the one hand by nature, and on the other by convention, there what is considered to be politically just is reduced only to the realm of the conventional:

“so the just according to nature is better than the just according to convention, but what we are inquiring about is the politically just; and the politically just is that which is by convention, not that which is by nature” (MM, 1194a1-4)

It seems as though in that work Aristotle is skeptical of finding any such natural justice within the political. But this position is altogether different from what Aristotle himself holds in the corresponding passage of his Nicomachean Ethics.

The conflict between both is strikingly made evident from the very first line where we are told that the division between natural right and conventional right IS set, unlike the previous quotation, within the overall discussion of political justice (1134b18-19). Perhaps why this difference exists can be somewhat understood by looking at the passage more closely.

In it, Aristotle first defines natural right as “that which has everywhere the same power and does not depend on being opined or not”. The “naturalness” of natural right resides precisely in its being independent both of spatial and temporal differences —-it is in a sense transhistorical and transcultural——, and of the multiplicity of conflicting opinions held by different humans. Natural right is truly something unchanging, or so it would seem. Suspiciously, Aristotle here gives no example to elaborate upon.

Conventional right, in contrast, can be seen in three interrelated forms. First it refers to “that with regard to which in the beginning it makes no difference whether matters are this or that way, but once it is established one way or another it does make a difference”. An interpretation could be as follows. For instance, in the downfall of a regime or in its early periods of consolidation, some aspects of conventional right can go in many different possible ways. It is ‘up for grabs’, so to speak. But once it has been set down as law, it determines (to a large extent in a negative form) what is to be considered just and what unjust. And here, unlike the case of natural right, Aristotle aids us somewhat by providing some examples. These refer specifically to laws regarding some aspect or other of war, the ransom of prisoners, and of religion, the number and nature of animals to be sacrificed. (Would it be too exaggerated to read these then as portraying how relativity appears foremost and most dangerously in the realm of the defense of one’s community and in religious strife?) Perhaps another example of this type of conventional right could be the national symbols of different states. Colombia’s or Canada’s flag could presumably have been otherwise, but now that they have been set in place it does make a difference if someone were to attempt to modify them in one way or another. In the religious realm for instance one could say it makes a great difference if one is brought up as Catholic or as Muslim (*6).

As a second field of conventional right Aristotle points to legislation that takes place in particular cases; private laws which for instance require sacrifices for outstanding, honour-deserving individuals such as the sacrifices for Brasidas, a spartan general (Penguin, 371). Conventional law then seeks to put forward legislation which acknowledges the sacrifices of some distinguished people who, for the sake of the political community, have sacrificed themselves and therefore “ought to be given some reward, honour or dignity. It is those who are not satisfied with these rewards that develop into despots” (1134b6-8). A similar contemporary example of this type of ‘conventional right’ would be the changing of the name of a city street to remember a given person ——for instance, in Montreal, the ‘Rene Levesque Avenue’—– however this example is not closely linked to law itself. (*7)

Finally the third category is that of ‘things passed by vote’. Although it is not clear to me what Aristotle refers to, perhaps one could think of cases such as the referendum in Quebec. If it had gone through, matters would now stand a quite different light. Aquinas sees this category of conventional right as referring to the decrees of judges (1022). If this is the correct way to understand it then examples of these type of decisions can be seen in multicultural societies where different conventional understandings require the transformation of the positive laws already set in place. As Parekh puts it:

“In all these cases person’s cultural background made a difference to his or her treatment by the courts. The law was pluralized and departures from the norm of formal equality were made in different ways and guises, showing how to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of uniformity and diversity” (Parekh, BCCD, 200)

Having given us a first look at the differentiation between natural and conventional right, Aristotle then proceeds to argue against those who believe that the politically just is only what is conventionally just; a position with which he himself sides, as we saw in the Magna Moralia. Aristotle continues his argument as follows: “but in the opinion of some, all things are such on the ground that what is by nature is unchangeable and has everywhere the same power, just as fire here and in Persia burns, but they see that the just things change”. Fire burns equally in Greece and in Persia, but what the Greeks and the Persians take to be ‘the just’, varies considerably. And furthermore, if what we said at the outset concerning the conditions of political justice is true, then Persia does not meet the conditions for speaking of political justice at all. This because of their not sharing in freedom and equality. Having chosen Persia in the example, therefore seems not to have been by luck.

Presumably Aristotle would go on to tell us, finally, just precisely how this standard, which natural right is, works. But to our disappointment this is precisely what Aristotle proceeds NOT do; or at least fully. Instead he tells us that all natural right is in fact just as changeable as conventional right. Or, he pauses, almost always, he says. That is, natural right seems unchangeable in reference to the gods, the celestial beings which for the Aristotle, as Aquinas reminds us (1026), are unchanging. But to our surprise once again the statement is qualified; even in divine matters the unchangeability of natural right is only ‘probably’ so. In this sense, as we shall see, Aristotle’s Gods do not fit well with Aquinas’. But leaving this question aside, for our purposes it is important to point to the changeability that Aristotle makes characteristic of natural right; the tranformability of that standard through which we aim somehow at ranking conventional understandings of the just. As Aristotle puts it, among us humans (*9): “while there is something by nature, it is ALL changeable and yet nevertheless there is that which is by nature and that which is not by nature”. The variability of natural right does not preclude its remaining to a degree invariable. The standard, if it exists at all, would then seem to resemble not an iron pole, but a more flexible structure such as that of a rubber band; capable of transforming itself without necessarily becoming something other that that which it is.

And while we stand rather perplexed by all of what has bee said, Aristotle, one feels almost jokingly, tells us that all this ought to be as clear as daylight: “now, which is by nature of the things that can be otherwise and which is not, but is instead conventional and by agreement, since both of them are equally changeable is CLEAR”. Well perhaps it is not. However, unlike the previous definition of natural right which excluded variability, this new qualified perspective is indeed, finally, followed by an example. But it is an extremely odd example, one which seems rather removed from the discussion of the politically just. It goes like this: “by nature the right is stronger though it is possible for everyone to become ambidextrous”. Few words which make one wonder what Aristotle is getting at.

Our first reaction could be to say; but look around you, there are many left handed people, for instance my brother –in–law, for whom the left hand is by nature the strongest. Is their left hand not ‘by nature’ the strongest? So Aristotle, what you are saying is not at all true (*10). Unfortunately our first objection seems made irrelevant if one looks at the corresponding example found in the Magna Moralia. There the same example is put forward, but with the notion of superiority left on the side: “yet nevertheless the left is such and such by nature, and the right is no less better than the left, even if we were to do everything with the left as with the right” (MM 1199b31-34). Aquinas understands this example as showing that natural right is valid in the majority of cases, but in some few cases it does not hold (1029); a position to which we shall return in the following section (*11). But perhaps there is another way to comprehend this flexibility of natural right, while having its kind of flexibility not partaking of the same type which characterizes that of the conventional.

One imaginative, perhaps too imaginative, way to do interpret the example, though this is not what Aristotle himself says, would be as follows. By nature most of us are indeed right handed, and some left handed. But being left handed or right handed takes no extraordinary effort on our part; we are so equipped by nature one way or the other. Aristotle himself has told us that we are equipped as humans in just the very same way not only as regards the different faculties of the soul, namely, the vegetative, the desiderative and the rational (1102b28ff), but likewise in the case of the potentiality to develop the moral virtues of which he says we are “constituted by nature to receive them” (1103a29). But although this is true under normal conditions, still few seek to modify what is given to us by nature, transforming it so that new, more complete organizations, can be achieved. Becoming ambidextrous, through a habitual practice involving throwing with the other hand (MM 1194b27), is just such a practice which changes what is, without making it something wholly different. In a similar way, the passage alluded to above, the one concerning the moral virtues, culminates by telling us that “their full development is due to habit”. Becoming virtuous transforms us in that, what we are potentially capacitated to do, reaches its utmost level of actualization. If one can imagine those who have indeed attempted to become ambidextrous, one can imagine the patience and personal commitment required in order to achieve that end which represents a flourishing towards higher natural completeness. And this end goes beyond utility and survival, though perhaps ambidextrous people will be more helpful under certain circumstances, for instance in the case of strikers in soccer who, because they can use both legs to hit the ball, can score more goals. This end involves, in a sense, a healthier realization, a completeness comparable to works of art (1106b9). It would be a little like becoming fully bilingual, not an easy matter, assuming that is that one learns the language not simply as a child. Unfortunately our imaginative analysis seems far removed from what Aristotle argues in the passage considered, for the passage as a whole focuses principally on political justice, not on individual health. (*12) But perhaps some regimes are healthier than others; some regimes fighting against all odds in order to become more readily ambidextrous.

Aristotle goes on to exemplify how, in contrast to the variability of the natural, so too the conventional has its own kind of variation. The conventional is now defined as that which “is by agreement and what is beneficial”. The appearance of the beneficial, which had not entered into the argument previously, seems to determine natural right contrastively as that which is not primarily concerned with utility, though it can incidentally be useful in different ways (as we saw in the case of the soccer striker). And once more, to clarify the issue, Aristotle gives us an obscure example regarding measures. A similar example, if I understand the issue correctly, would be that of the beneficial, and agreed to, use of human standards such as that of the metric system. We all agree what a 100 meters are, we sense it is beneficial to agree thus, particularly in Olympic races. However the conventional nature of this standard, the metric one, comes to the fore when compared to other systems like the US system and its use of feet. Unfortunately these examples do not refer to lawful arrangements and in this way would seem to differ somewhat from what Aristotle tells us. But if this example is not the best, Aristotle himself has provided us with one in the whole discussion of Justice, that of the use of money by communities. Even the name itself of money, nomisma reflects its conventionality: “this is why money is so called, because it exists not by nature but by custom, and it is in our power to change its value or render it useless” (1133a29-31).

The fact that Aristotle somehow senses that his own example concerning measures is far removed from political justice, surfaces in the line which continues his argumentation. Relativity and conventionality are present not simply in measurements, but principally in political regimes: “the just things that are not by nature but merely by humans are not the same everywhere, since the regimes are not”. It is precisely here where political justice seems to be destined to a relativity based upon the different views of what conventional right is, or might be. But this is not new to Aristotle. He has pointed to this difficulty from the very start of the Book on Justice, particularly in his consideration of justice in the general sense. There justice as the lawful, which aims at securing happiness for the members of the political community, was partly understood as follows:

“the laws prescribe for all departments of life aiming at the common advantage whether of all the citizens, or of the best of them, or of the ruling class, or on some other basis. So in a sense we call just anything that tends to produce or conserve the happiness (and constituents of happiness) of a political association (1129b16-21)

If law so varies from regime to regime, then it seems that the search for a natural right from which to critically assess the different interpretation of the role of law is ruled out as utopian. This troubling conclusion is in fact made worse because of the fact that within each type of regime there exists fallibility as to the setting down of the laws themselves: “the law commands some kinds of behaviour and forbids others; rightly of the law is rightly enacted, but not so well if it is an improvised measure” (1129b28-29). There would then be different types of happiness, one here, one there; all equally unquestionable. Or so it would seem.

Aristotle knows of this variability of conventional law, but he knows too of the necessity of providing a human standard from which judgment can be passed on diversity. This is why the passage we have been analyzing continues precisely by calling forth such criteria. The complete passage reads: “similarly the just things that are not by nature but merely by humans are not the same everywhere, since the regimes are not, THOUGH there is only one that is everywhere according to nature the best”. We stand perplexed for Aristotle seems to want it both ways. He wants to argue that what is merely by humans is not by nature, and presumably all political justice concerns the human, and, therefore cannot be by nature. And yet there is such a regime, he claims, that is by nature the best of possible regimes; and presumably if this regime has anything to tell us humans, then it is of human form. Perhaps natural here could be understood by looking back at the example of the ambidextrous individual. Just as by nature we are all born either right handed or left handed, so by nature, according to Aristotle, we humans are political animals; we live in political associations where alone the good life can be achieved. However all existing regimes deviate to different extents from the best human level of political fulfillment and health; one must therefore seek to understand the complex circumstances in which such deviations have come about.

But if the development of the ambidextrous person requires a level of personal commitment and dedication that is undertaken by few; this effort presumably would be much more difficult to obtain at the level of the whole political community. A tension arises between those transforming themselves in order to become ambidextrous, and the need to transform the political conditions in which becoming ambidextrous rises as a human possibility. As Aristotle puts it:

“As for the education of the individual, that which makes him simply a good man, we must determine later whether it falls under political science or some other, because probably it is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen” (1130b25-30)

But indeed it would seem too that the healthier the regime’s commitment to political justice, the healthier the individuals partaking of that standard; and vice-versa the healthier the individuals, the healthier the political association itself. (e.g. 1129a16-21). Furthermore. the fact that this standard is not a transcendental object independent of the way we humans live in our always imperfect political communities, is hinted too also in the Ethics. The final lines of the work tell us of an investigatory procedure that must be followed to complete our understanding of the realm of the ethical by way of a study of the political:

“So let us first try to review any valid statements … that have been made by our predecessors; and then to consider, in the light of our collected examples of constitutions what influences are conservative and what are destructive of a state …. and for what reasons states are well governed … for after examining these questions we shall perhaps see more comprehensively what kind of constit ution is the best ….” (1181b13-21).

What is by nature the best is not an immutable given, but the end object of a comparative study of the different existing regimes which remain always wanting due to the very complex circumstances in which they develop. In this sense political justice by nature is transformable though it is not made completely anew each time new information is gathered as regards the different conventional political communities. (*14) Respect for multiplicity does not signify not being able to reach out to certain criteria which the best possible polis ought to follow; an issue taken up at length in the Politics.


Two of the most important interpretations of the passage we have attempted to clarify have been those of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua. Their positions are so divergent that for Strauss they can be said to exemplify the opposition between the ‘theological’ and the ‘philosophical’ interpretations of natural right (Strauss, PAW 96-7). Are these two views thus condemned to the very incommensurability which we have argued an account of natural right seeks to counter at the level of the political? Is one more in accordance with the Aristotelian position as articulated in the text itself? Or do both take from Aristotle what fits their personal mold, so that the Aristotelian perspective is, though transformed, not Aristotelian in a strong sense? Can one, as Strauss proposes, seek some middle road between what, perhaps in the final analysis turn out to be not two extremes in a continuum, but rather two altogether different fields of human understanding? Perhaps by looking critically at each of the authors in turn, we might gain some insight, however slight, on these difficult questions.

Aquinas’ outlook of the world and ourselves is that of one of the major strands to be found within the Catholic tradition; the other being that of Saint Augustine. Because of this, Aquinas superimposes a Catholic mold over the pre-Christian Aristotelian interpretation of natural right. And this does not go by unnoticed when one compares it to the original text in Aristotle. One of the places where this recasting of Aristotle’s wording becomes more salient can be seen in what Aquinas takes to be the relationship between the principles concerning speculative matters, and those that serve as guides for human action in the variable realm of practical affairs. In his commentary on the Ethics he tells us that, just as in speculative philosophy:

“likewise in practical matters there are some principles naturally known as it were, indemonstrable principles and truths related to them, as evil must be avoided, no one is to be unjustly injured, theft must not be committed and so on” (1018)

The ethical, according to Aquinas, deals with indemonstrable principles which we humans ought to take as starting points and guidelines by way of which we can determine the just or unjust nature of actions, both at the level of the individual and that of the political community. Just as we cannot prove Euclid’s most fundamental axioms, so in the realm of conduct we cannot demonstrate the validity of those fundamental principles which determine that evil, injustice and theft ought always, without exception, to be avoided. (*15)

Although it is quite true that Aristotle sometimes speaks in an Aquinas-like fashion, particularly in Book 2 of his Ethics, he nonetheless goes out of his way to clarify more fully what is set there as an introductory framework; one to be followed by different qualifications. The passage in question, which concerns the inexistence of a mean in some cases, reads as follows: “but not every action or feeling admits of a mean; because some have names that directly connote depravity, such as malice, shamelessness and envy and among actions, adultery, theft and murder ….. in either case … one is ALWAYS wrong” (1107a9-15). Though superficially on the same track as Aquinas’ argument, nevertheless Aristotle gives us much more, and much less, than Aquinas does. Aristotle never alludes to any indemonstrable truths, and besides, his longer list includes not only actions, but feelings as well. For Aristotle goodness is concerned not only with the way we act on the world and others, but also, and just as importantly, with the way we are open to this world and others with whom we share in it (1109b30).

Besides Aristotle does not leave this statement, which appears early on in the text, unqualified. Instead his different discussions ——on the difficulty of defining the mean when considered in relation to us and the action concerned, on the relationship between voluntary and involuntary action, and on his analysis of the virtues and the tension present in their being taken as ends in themselves or for the sake of something else—— rids the Aristotelian passage of Aquinas’ sense of immutability and indemonstrability. And this is no surprise to us who sense that Aquinas’ “free(dom) from hesitations and ambiguities” (Strauss, CNR) (*16), is somehow linked to the certainty offered by the presence of clear cut, and clearly articulated, divine commandments. Aquinas lacks, at times, the permanent Aristotelian consideration for the fluidity and flexibility characteristic of the practical affairs in which different human beings are involved. For Aristotle:

“questions of conduct and expediency have as little fixity about them as questions about what is healthful; and if this is true of the general rule, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision” (1104a3-7) (see also 1094a11 ff).

(Which is of course not to say that Aristotle does not have criteria for the consideration of an action as praiseworthy or blameworthy). A clear example of the tension between both the Catholic and the Greek outlook can be seen by focusing on one of the actions to which both writers allude, namely, that of theft. For Aquinas “those actions belonging to the very nature of justice cannot be changed in anyway, for example, theft must not be commited because an injustice” (1029). Robbing is an activity that we should strive with all our might to avoid for it involves, under all circumstances, committing an unjustice. Stealing is sinful. In contrast, by taking up the Aristotelian multilayered qualifications, one could eventually come to conceive of, or be actually involved in, situations where stealing would not only not be evil, but perhaps the best possible course of action under the constraining circumstances. War sets the conditions for just this kind of exceptional undertakings. (*17)

But this reading is rather unfair to the very sensitivity which is characteristic of Aquinas’ outlook. The Catholic philosopher himself acknowledges some variability. Nevertheless it concerns not the principles (i.e. no variability in terms of natural right), but the specific actions undertaken. His interpretation of the passage on becoming ambidextrous is here, I think, revealing. He tells us: “so also the things that are just be nature, for example, that a deposit ought to be returned must be observed in the majority of cases but is changed in the minority”(1028) (which deals with part of the first definition of justice given by Polemarchus to Socrates in Plato’s Republic 331d (*18)). However, although this example does qualify somewhat what we previously said, still the principle to which this specific example alludes, is definitely not of the stronger type, the kind which merits inclusion under the Decalogue.

But no matter how the matter stands here, that which is most un-Aristotelian in the whole interpretation by Aquinas on natural right, lies in that the standard upon which such right is founded is not of human origin. Aquinas’ yardstick, though it is in fact related to human rationality ——a faculty Aquinas tells us is shared by all humans making them capable of distinguishing what is disgraceful from what is honorable (1019)—— is itself measured by a not so human standard. Reason is completed only with view to faith; natural right is superseded, or finds its fundamental expression in divine law. As Strauss puts it: “the ultimate consequence of the Thomistic point of view is practically inseparable from natural theology … but even from revealed theology” (Strauss, NRH, 164). This theological perspective retakes some of the conceptions presented by Aristotle, but informs them with a mold which at times does not fit as gracefully as one would desire. Natural right looses the ambivalence which enriched the Aristotelian perspective, and which we saw was continually present in the struggles faced in the passage analyzed. All conventional right, all political justice, can therefore be adequately compared to that standard which holds universally and equally for all. And given that its fundamental seal of guarantee lies not in rationality but rather in faith, no matter what one makes of this position, it remains true that Aquinas’ faith in the Catholic God, as contrasted to the divine in Aristotle, stands unchallenged by any appeal to reason. (*19) Precisely because of this, finding some kind of middle road between this interpretation, and Marsilius’, seems an unfortunate project to undertake. One cannot have both of them at the same time, for their standards for measuring are fundamentally of a different qualitative kind. These would stand very much in accordance to Marsilius view. But to see why this is so, one needs to consider the other side of the balance.

What Strauss calls the ‘philosophical’ interpretation of Aristotle, is carried out by Marsilius of Padua, following Averroes. While the Renaissance writer does take up some of the elements analyzed in the discussion of the Aristotelian passage, his primary objective seems to be to set itself as a radically different alternative to Aquinas’ ‘theological’ view. In that Marsilius seems —–I say ‘seems’ for, as we shall see, this is not completely so—— to set himself against a religious tradition, one finds a first parallel between him and Aristotle. The latter too sets his conception of philosophy against a traditional perspective of the divine which finds its clearest expression in the Delphic inscription found both ethics (EN 1099a26-7). However, the religious traditions which they both question, are of a very different nature.

In his attack on the view of natural right which links it to divine law, Marsilius puts forward two arguments concerning the relationship between it, and its counterpart, conventional right. In order to go through each I will designate the first the ‘as-if’ argument, and the second, the ‘plural rationalities’ argument. According to the first, natural right concerns “that which almost everyone agrees is respectable”. A statement with which neither Aquinas nor Aristotle would agree. On the one hand, for Aquinas it is precisely its immutability that which gives natural right its divine force. On the other, for Aristotle, it is precisely its being independent of opinion that which makes natural right that which it is; general agreement belongs only to the realm of conventional right. Moreover, to differentiate himself much more profoundly from the Catholic alternative, Marsilius includes under this conception the immutable laws which conform the Decalogue; obligations which are, according to Aquinas, exception-free, such as worshiping God and honouring one’s parents. What I have called the ‘as-if’ argument really gets its name it what follows position based on consent. Marsilius understands natural as being conceivable solely in a “metaphorical” sense. If one is clear about natural right, then one does not delude oneself into really believing it can be taken in the literal sense. Natural right is not univocal but equivocal; it is simply a very good intentioned belief we humans hold on to. It is neither an indemonstrable truth as for Aquinas, nor a real standard as for Aristotle.

It is particularly illuminating in understanding the difference between Marsilius and Aristotle, to look at the example concerning the fact that fire burns equally everywhere. In Marsilius its articulation is completely transformed. And this change points us back to one of the prefatory remarks I made in the introduction, namely, that the non-teleological view of the universe is the view of nature open to us moderns. As Marsilius puts it: “like the acts of natural things NOT having purpose are everywhere the same, such as fire which burns here just as it does in Persia”. Nothing would seem more foreign to the Aristotelian conception of teleological nature. For Marsilius, in a universe devoid of purposefulness, the notion of natural right cannot stem from a consideration of an external order which we seek to understand, and in so doing reach our highest potentialities. (However, it seems clear that Aristotle in his own argumentation did not lay claim to such teleology as grounding his own perspective on natural right).

The second argument, what I have called the ‘plural rationalities argument’, seems once again set primarily against Aquinas’ view of natural right; though it is likewise not wholly in accordance with what Aristotle has told us. As we saw, for Aquinas the force of natural right stemmed from the rational capacity we humans have to be able to recognize and live by the principles revealed to us by God. In stark contrast, Marsilius tells us, quite sure of himself —— he uses the words ‘of course’—- that these rational principles (not to say anything of the divine principles underpinning them), are not at all known to all humans. An affirmation which, for instance would still seem not to preclude the search for evangelization. This is so because with an effort on the part of different missionaries, all of us could be brought to finally see and abide by these standards. However, the ignorance of the ‘correct’ principles, for Marsilius, leads consequently to the much more problematic fact that they are “not admitted by all, and all nations do not concede (them) to be respectable”. Presumably those who do not admit them, as opposed to those who are merely ignorant of them, could also be brought to finally admitting them. But the history which lies behind this procedure, particularly in the case of the Catholic Church, would make us now hesitate over considering such “forceful” transformation. Natural right, and it is noteworthy that nowhere does Marsilius mention the example of the ambidextrous human, would then seem to be inexistent. Consequently, any attempt to judge these different nations would be, if not an unrealistic affair, at least a much more arduous one than either Aquina or Aristotle would allow. For Marsilius what each nation finds respectable, is precisely what each holds to be their view of conventional right. Natural right ceases to exist because as Strauss puts it:

“The effectiveness of general rules depends on their being taught without ifs or buts. But the omission of the qualification which makes the rule —— makes them at the same time untrue. The unqualified rules are not natural right but conventional right” (Strauss, NRH, 158).

Or so it would seem. What Strauss does not mention, though it is striking and reminds us of Aristotle’s ambivalence, is that Marsilius, in the end, pauses to tell us that, for the most part, we can still go on with divine law: “There are also precepts, prohibitions, or permissions in accordance with divine law which agree in this respect with human law, which since they are known in many instances, I have not given examples of for the sake of abbreviating this sermon”. But even at this level one would, following Marsilius own propositions, be led to ask; which set of divine laws are you speaking of?

As has been seen, both Aquinas’ and Marsilius’ interpretations not only stand in conflict with each other, but likewise read into, and suspiciously pass over, central elements of the Aristotelian passage analyzed. Furthermore, as we pointed out, seeking to find a middle road between these alternatives is an entreprise which seems to be blind to the fact that both stand in rather different spaces of inquiry. However Strauss has attempted to move in that direction seeking to avoid the extreme immutability of Aquinas’ position, and the extreme variability of Marsilius’. Briefly put, for Strauss natural right consists in highly particular decisions, taken in concrete circumstances. However this variability of the natural is, as in Aristotle, at the same time accompanied by an underpinning sense of what are the ethical principles: “(for) one can hardly deny that in all concrete decisions general principles are implied and presupposed” (159). An instance in which such concrete and variable decision making becomes evident, lies in those extreme circumstances in which the survival of the political community, the existence of the common good itself, is what is at stake. In such circumstances normality is shaken to the point that what becomes primary, and urgently so, is the very survival of the community itself: “in extreme situations the normally valid rules of natural right are justly changed, or changed in accordance with natural right, the exceptions are as just as the rules” (160) (*20). One could ask, however, are extreme situations the only ones in which natural right, in all its variability, appears? Is its scope then so limited as to become rather secondary? Moreover, in a given community one need ask, who is it precisely that decides what constitutes an extreme situation in which normalcy can be temporarily waived? (*21) What if the regime in question precisely seeks such appeals to set itself as unquestionable?

Strauss acknowledges these difficulties in his distancing himself from the Machiavellian conception of natural right, founded on the extreme situations themselves rather than on the normality which Aristotle takes as starting point. Moreover, Strauss points out to a critical standard which, he holds, holds universally for all conventional right:

“there is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action” (162) ….or elsewhere “the only universally valid standard is the hierarchy of ends. This standard is sufficient for passing judgment of the nobility of individuals and of actions and institutions. But it is insufficient for guiding our actions” (163).

Unlike Aquinas’ position, Strauss’ has the virtue of regaining the fluidity and transformability of natural right which characterized the Aristotelian understanding. Likewise, unlike Marsilius’ alternative it does present us, like Aristotle, with some natural standard which would allow political justice to surge above the ephimerality of conventional right. Moreover, he points to the fact that Aristotle’s hesitations stem from the multiplicity of circumstances in which human beings find themselves throughout their lives. As we saw: “questions of conduct and expedience have as little fixity about them as questions about what is healthful; and if this is true of the general urle, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision” (1104a4-9). Furthermore, as in Aristotle the focus too is not primarily on knowing what goodness is, but on learning how to become good human beings (1103b28-9) (a statement qualified for young people in 1095a5 who fail to learn anything from lectures on ethics for they are lead away by their passionate natures into different types of actions).

But, precisely how this hierarchy of ends is to be understood is quite a different problem altogether. As we saw not even Aquinas and Marsilius seemed to be in agreement as to an extremely short passage within Aristotle’s text. Presumably then one cannot claim to have the unique interpretation which will, finally, clarify what counts as constitutive of this hierarchy. How to understand is a contested matter presumably to be cleared by reading and re-reading the text itself. However, let us conclude by saying that an elucidation of this hierarchy must consider different passages in which such a hierarchical structuring takes place. Briefly, some of these are: i) the existence of a hierarchy in the arts which culminates in the architectonic arts, ii) the formulation of happiness as the highest possible end for us humans, end under which all other goods are subordinated, iii) the hierarchical division of the soul into the vegetative, the appetitive and the rational (logos); linked to the corresponding proper function of humans according to rational principle, iv) the hierarchy of goods as found in the tripartite division, goods of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul, v) the hierarchy of different types of lives; the life of business, of enjoyment, of politics and of philosophical contemplation, vi) the hierarchy of the moral virtues, hierarchy in which greatness of soul stands as one of the peaks and finally, vii) the peak which justice represents, one revealing a reconsideration of the moral virtues under the perspective of the good, fundamentally, for the other.



1. This important question is posed by Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing pg 95.

2. Strauss goes on to compare modern relativity to nihilism; though he does not mention that nihilism can be of two very different variants, the active and the passive. Nietzsche, Will to Power #22.

3. Strauss agrees with Taylor here, pg. 164

4. Taylor agrees with Strauss here. Section 3.1


5. Arendt deals with this extremely important difference, between the private and the public, in her The Human Condition.

6. A case in point is that of Charly Garcia, a famous Argentinian rock star, and his reinterpretation of the Argentinian National Anthem in heavy metal form. It shocked many Argentinians.

7. Presumably the important issue of equity, as dealing with the faulty generality of law, would somehow be linked to these particular transformations of the law.

8. Parekh gives examples such as this: “In R v Bibi (1980) the Court of Appeal reduced the imprisonment of a Muslim widow, found guilty of importing cannabis, from three years to 6 months on the ground, that, among other things, she was totally dependent on her brother-in-law and was socialized by her religion into subservience to the male members of her household” (200) Other very interesting and complex examples are given in the readings by Carens (see bibliography).

9. The qualification ‘in relation to us’ has taken place not only concerning ethical inquiry in general (1095b11 ff), but also concerning the mean (1106a30 ff)

10. It is interesting to note that under Catholicism the left hand has had a rather unfortunate history. This is more salient in the Spanish words siniestra, the left, and diestra, the right. Siniestra has altogether negative connotations just as sinister does in English.

11. Aquinas gives an example of humans having by nature two feet; this of course is not the Aristotelian example precisely because it does not deal with the transformability of the natural.

12. The connection here between this example and the always elusive issue of health as regards justice (see chapter 1) I believe is there, though I do not quite know how to articulate it fully at the moment.

13. That these matters make a difference can be seen, for instance, if one asks somebody used to one of the given measurements to imagine the other. If somebody asked me, for instance, the altitude of Santafé de Bogotá in feet, I would be at a loss as to what to answer. Though I know, and was brought up to memorize as a child, the corresponding measure in meters.

14. This looking at actual real cases is what lies behind Carens’ appeal to differentiating between policy making and philosophical comprehension, or between idealistic and realistic approaches to politics. He asks one to, rather than staying at one of the extremes. move towards a form of reflexive equilibrium. On a different note, the passage which ends the chapter to be analyzed was left on the side primarily because of the difficulty in viewing how to link it to the whole discussion. Is there such a connection?


15. Of course in modern geometry Euclid’s axioms are only a set of the possible starting points. Conventionality has reached even such indemonstrable truths for us moderns.

16. Kantian ethics is too permeated by this rigidity, primarily as regards its distinction between the moral and the non-moral spheres. There is a sharp line differentiating both.

17. Strauss gives the example of espionage. pg 160

18. Socrates “tricks” Thrasymachus into assuming a natural standard which he himself did not hold by way of his definition of justice with reference to the strongest.

19. The question as to whether one can return to the Greeks, having had 2000 years of Catholic tradition, is a difficult one. One can see he ambivalence in poems such as Rimbaud’s nostalgic Soleil et Chair.

20. The extreme situation for the individual is presented by Aristotle in 1100b31 ff.

21. In Colombia, where I was born, there is such a law which is called “Ley de Conmocion Interior”. It can be set in place when the public order is imperiled; as it has happened many times happens under the Colombian reality, one of a weak form of democracy (some would argue an oligarchy). But it is limited to a 3 month period of application; presumably so that the exception does not become the satte of normalcy. But also so that the government does not use it to further its own objectives. Under this law for instance military officials require no warrants in the persecution of criminals. However the governement has used it, I believe, as a weapon to fight matters which go beyond the defense of the public realm; or at least as a substitute for other measures which would go to the heart of the violence and poverty which permeates everyday reality.


A) Primary Sources

Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1rst 1894, 20th 1988, Edited by I. Bywater.

Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, Penguin Books, London, 1rst- 1953, 1988. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

B) Secondary Sources

Carens, Joseph, “Complex Justice, Cultural Difference and Political Community”

——– “Realistic and Idealistic Approaches to the Ethics of Migration”

——– “Democracy and Respect for Difference”

Course Handouts:

——Aquinas, Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, 1018-1032

——Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 5, chap 7 9113418-35a15)

——Marsilius of Padua, Defender of Peace, Discourse 2, Chap 12, sec 7-9

Parekh, Bikhu, “British Citizenship and Cultural Difference”, in Geoff Andrews (de.) Citizenship, Lawrence and Wishart, London, pp.  183-204.

Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History, University of Chicago Press, “Introduction“ and “Classical Natural Right”, pp.  156-164.

——- Persecution and the Art of Writing, pp.  95-98

Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

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