BMCR 1993.01.15

1993.01.15, Kenny, Aristotle on the Perfect Life

, Aristotle on the perfect life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. viii, 173 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780198240174. $49.95.

This century has been kind to the Eudemian Ethics. Ninety years ago, many scholars ascribed the work not to Aristotle but to his colleague, Eudemus of Rhodes. But as the millenium approaches, the EE enjoys new prestige, including admission to the ranks of the OCT’s (under the sponsorship of Richard Walzer and Jean Mingay), a place of distinction in the Clarendon Aristotle (only Michael Woods’ translation and commentary has reached a second edition), and intense scrutiny from many quarters, philosophical and philological alike. No one has done more to encourage this revival than Anthony Kenny. Fifteen years ago, in The Aristotelian Ethics (Oxford, 1978), he ignited intense debate by challenging the age-old preeminence of the Nicomachean Ethics ( NE) and claiming ancient authority for treating the EE as the definitive presentation of Aristotle’s views. He continued his campaign in Aristotle’s Theory of the Will (London & New Haven, 1979), which contends that the EE supplies a theory the NE is widely thought to lack. And now, as discussion of his proposals wanes, he has returned to the territory he has done so much to map, in part to renew his earlier claims, but also to supplement them by charting further terrain in the work he still professes to prefer .

Kenny here focuses on three issues that have loomed large in recent discussions of Aristotle’s ethics: the nature of eudaimonia or happiness; its relation to friendship and fortune; and the role of intellectual pursuits. Much of what he says is sensible and useful, and he takes some pains to acknowledge rival views. But the strength of the book is its attention to the less familiar material in the EE. On issues involving the NE, he has little new to add, and he often states his views fairly baldly after summarizing a few highlights from current debates. But when he turns to the EE, he is more attentive to textual details and he offers interesting new interpretations of a number of passages. On the topic of fortune, in particular, he expands upon an earlier and cursory paper to present a line-by-line exegesis of some of the most corrupt pages in the corpus, EE 8.2. (Not least because of the many emendations he proposes or adopts, Kenny and the publishers are to be commended for including a complete text and translation in appendices.)

In this book, as in Kenny’s earlier studies, the relation between the two works is more than a leitmotif. His selection of topics seems designed to emphasize differences between the two, and he repeatedly points out issues on which he thinks the EE takes a more plausible position or presents better arguments. His strategy in much of the book, in fact, is to outline a position presented in the NE, to indicate its problems, and then to show how the EE avoids or answers them. On the other hand, Kenny includes a long appendix responding to critics of his earlier work, in which he maintains that his original aim was more modest: “to encourage agnosticism: an agnosticism that was open to the possibility—no more—that the NE, or parts of it, were superseded by the EE.” In particular, he insists that his principal thesis, which he defends anew, was that the three books generally referred to as NE 5-7, but which are found in manuscripts of both treatises and which Kenny therefore dubbed the “Aristotelian Ethics” or AE A-C, originated as EE 4-6. His clarifications and attendant qualifications are welcome, given that many, myself included, thought he meant to establish more than he now claims. But I must confess that I fail to see how they resolve a question that many, especially those less familiar with Aristotle’s ethics, are likely to ask: why such industry and ingenuity on behalf of a thesis necessarily speculative and seemingly trivial?

The reason, which appears explicitly only on the book’s dust jacket, is simple, and utterly fundamental. Kenny, like most modern admirers of the NE, believes that its account of eudaimonia, explicitly in Bk. 10 and potentially also in Bk. 1, is distinctly “intellectualist” rather than “inclusive”—that it equates happiness not with the exercise of rational virtue broadly conceived so as to include the several moral virtues and practical wisdom, but with the exercise of a single rational virtue, philosophical understanding alone. Some have embraced this ideal, but Kenny is one of many who find it morally repugnant, not least because it threatens to license immorality in the service of intellectual activity. Rather than reject Aristotle’s ethics wholesale, however, he advocates demoting the NE to a position of less authority than the EE, where he and others claim to find an inclusive ideal. The debate about which is the definitive work thus bears directly on the single most basic issue in Aristotle’s ethics, and whatever Kenny’s motives may be, his views about the relative strengths of each work certainly fit his views about which advances the more attractive theory.

Kenny may be right that “the EE taken with the AE makes up a more coherent whole than the NE taken with the AE.” It hardly follows, of course, that the former is the definitive account. Aristotle might equally have abandoned an inclusive ideal in favor of intellectualism and simply neglected to rework all the topics covered in AE. More is at issue, then, than Kenny’s thesis about those shared books. Indeed, the coherence of the NE remains a problem no matter where the AE belongs, because the intellectualism of 10.6-8 clashes with material throughout its other books. Many scholars, moreover, have found the EE problematic in the same way, since it too closes by subordinating moral pursuits to intellectual ones. Kenny naturally resists this reading. He reasonably interprets the end of 8.3 more generously, so that “serving god” (1249b20) includes virtuous action as well as intellectual activity; and addressing a question too rarely asked, he argues that Aristotle’s references to theoria should be understood to embrace more than pondering established truths of philosophy. But surely, if we need to revise prevailing ideas about contemplation for EE 8, then NE 10 deserves similar charity.

Kenny’s is not the only way to save Aristotle from intellectualism, and the alternatives are more numerous than he signals. Richard Kraut, in Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton, 1989), argues that the NE admits both ideals, not as consistent with one another but as species of a more general account outlined in NE 1. Kenny cites Kraut’s book and acknowledges the references to distinct forms of happiness in NE 10 on which Kraut relies heavily; but he never mentions that this might mitigate intellectualism. Kenny’s account of EE 8 suggests another and not unrelated route. In a passage he himself quotes, the EE refers to mousike theoria (1245a22); he renders this as “artistic contemplation”, but it could easily include studies of the sort described in Politics 8 or exemplified by the Poetics, both of which are rich in moral content. Even in intellectualism, then, the scope of theoria is wider than usually allowed, embracing reflection not only on mathematics, science, and “first philosophy”, but also on ethical principles and problems. Yet another route turns on Aristotle’s notion of “perfect virtue” ( teleia arete), which is central to Kenny’s argument. In the EE, as he emphasizes, this is clearly equivalent to “complete virtue”, which includes the several moral virtues. Absent a comparably explicit gloss in the NE, he argues that it must refer to the single best virtue, hence nothing but sophia alone. But a third possibility is at hand, though rarely considered. As Kenny shows in helpful discussions of EE 8.3, that work explains “complete virtue” as “final virtue”—as virtue valued for its own sake as opposed to its consequences and external goods. Not only is the notion of finality carefully explicated in the passage immediately preceding the reference to teleia arete in NE 1.7. It is also at the heart of the NE account of “magnanimity” in 4.3 (and less plainly but implicitly in EE 3.5). And when it appears again in the account of justice in Kenny’s AE A.1, the question whether to call this NE 5 or EE 4 loses much of its urgency; for the interpretation of teleia arete is a crux in the NE account of happiness.

At issue is not whether Aristotle’s two major ethical works differ. The crucial question, and one that must be settled before either can be used to explicate the other, is how far they are compatible. Kenny has now written three books enumerating differences he considers significant. But rarely do I find them as telling as he does. Most, I would argue, amount only to clarifications or alternative formulations, and they represent changes not in doctrine but in its articulation. The many points of difference Kenny discusses deserve a more detailed treatment than I can offer here. But one general worry is briefly stated. I think his standards of comparison betray a serious deficiency in his method. For ironically, in his zeal to elucidate one neglected work, he neglects the evidence of most others. Closer comparisons with the Politics or Rhetoric or Poetics, to which he rarely appeals, would show that Aristotle’s terminology is less rigid than some of Kenny’s claims presuppose. Though hardly proof of consistency, this fluidity certainly counsels against inferring inconsistency from verbal discrepancies.

Kenny succeeds in posing several specific challenges to prevailing assumptions about Aristotle’s two ethical treatises, and he is usually conscientious about stating opposing views. I would not recommend the book as an introduction to its topics, because it leaves significant gaps in the story and does not always make clear what exactly is at stake. But it is an important contribution, especially to the explication of a difficult but important text, the Eudemian Ethics. Kenny ends this book with stirring praise for the study of Aristotle’s ethics, and while I disagree with him on many points, he once again deserves thanks both for his vigorous scepticism and for his forthright discussion of such basic issues.