BMCR 2001.10.18

Response: Crisp on Russell on Crisp and Aristotle

Response to 2001.09.24

Response by

Daniel Russell makes some kind remarks about my translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, even suggesting that it is a ‘page-turner’. This is about the closest I’m likely to get to writing an airport novel, so I’m most grateful for his endorsement. But some of his criticisms rest on misunderstandings of me and, more significantly, Aristotle.

First, on the translations of certain terms. As I admit at the beginning of my brief glossary (which is not mentioned by Russell): ‘Many of the English words used in this translation, as in any translation of Aristotle, have connotations not found in the Greek, and fail to bring out aspects of the Greek terms they translate’.

For patho s, Russell prefers ’emotion’ or ‘passion’ to ‘feeling’. He says that ‘while there is a way that (say) anger feels, it is quite another to say that that feeling is what anger is’. It is indeed, but my translation does not say it. Aristotle’s claim in II.5 that the virtues are not pathê, Russell suggests, is odd if we understand the claim as about feelings. It doesn’t seem odd to me (or to Ross or Irwin, the two other translators singled out by Russell), since Aristotle defines feelings quite clearly in this chapter as those things in the soul ‘accompanied by pleasure or pain’. And I can’t see why it would be any less odd if he were understood to be speaking of emotions or passions—indeed, the latter would strike me as a bit peculiar. Russell says that understanding pleasure as a feeling (1105a3) is in tension with its being conceived by Aristotle in later books as an activity. But Aristotle opposes activities not to pathê, but to comings-to-be. As I say in my glossary, a pathos should be understood as ‘a way of being affected’, and Irwin’s glossary (s.v., ‘feeling’) provides a fuller justification for the translation. Russell would have preferred me more often to use different translations of the same word. But on the whole I tended toward consistency rather than fluidity (readability wasn’t in fact one of my primary aims, but closeness to the Greek was).

Russell thinks using ‘rational choice’ for prohairesis makes Aristotle sound like a proto-welfare economist, and prefers ‘choice’. How, then, will he translate ‘ hairesis‘, which is shared, unlike prohairesis, with animals? Prohairesis is explicitly said by Aristotle to involve reason (1112a16). How Russell can think Aristotle is not speaking of ‘sensible as opposed to poor choices’ in III.2 is beyond me.

Many modern proponents of virtue ethics call themselves ‘Aristotelian’ or ‘neo-Aristotelian’, and in my introductory essay I tried to sound a note of caution about too hastily allying oneself with a thinker whose ethical assumptions are so different from those of any modern. Russell takes me to be proposing a merely ‘antiquarian’ approach to Aristotle. I am sorry for misleading him, though I am not quite sure how I managed it. The suggestion that one should remember cultural, historical, and philosophical distance does not amount to any recommendation of antiquarianism. Russell also appears to think that modern proponents of the ethics of virtue offer mere unsystematized ‘grocery lists’ of virtues, unlike the ancients. I wonder whom is he thinking of. Certainly it is not true of, for example, Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Rosalind Hursthouse. Russell suggests that it is central to Aristotle’s project to explain the ‘rational order and unity’ in the particular list of virtues he selects, but he gives no reference to the text. None springs to my mind: Aristotle seems to begin from a list which would have been pretty common-sensical for his time, though his own conceptions of these virtues often take him far from that common understanding. Russell is unsure what to infer from the ‘interesting fact’ that Aristotle has no place for benevolence on his list. Well, one thing one might infer is that his moral view is very different from ours.

Russell’s most sustained objection to my interpretation of Aristotle is that ‘in Crisp the moral virtues and practical wisdom seem like separate faculties, which only work in tandem, whereas for Aristotle practical wisdom is the part of a virtue that makes it a virtue’. He supports this claim by quoting the following sentence of mine: ‘Virtues are dispositions engendered in us through practice or habituation’, apparently inferring that this is all I think they are. But that inference is clearly false and would be as easy to make from some of Aristotle’s statements about virtue in book II. And if it misleading of me to claim that ‘the virtues of [the non-rational part of the soul] are the virtues of character: courage, generosity, and so on’, it is misleading of Aristotle to say what amounts to the same thing at 1103a3-7. Just to be clear on this: Aristotle’s virtue of generosity involves both a habituated disposition—a virtue of character—which is not merely ‘natural’ but ‘real’ or genuine (see VI.13), and practical wisdom. And it is practical wisdom that changes naturalness into ‘reality’. On reflection, I think that had I emphasized the natural/real distinction in my discussion of practical wisdom, my account might have been clearer. But I do not believe I said anything that implied the view that the virtues of character of the virtuous person are ‘mere habituated dispositions’.

Further, denying—as Russell seems to be—that, in a significant sense, the moral virtues and practical wisdom are ‘separate faculties’ seems to ride roughshod over a distinction quite central to Aristotelian ethics: that between the virtues of character and those of the intellect. In a sense, practical wisdom and the virtues of character are ‘two sides of one coin’, as Russell says. Generosity involves both virtue of character and practical wisdom. But there is an important difference between character and the intellect, corresponding to differences between parts of the soul. Russell claims ‘Practical wisdom, then, is the intellectual part of the moral virtues, and the moral virtues belong to both parts of the soul in a particular relationship’. Does he mean that practical wisdom ‘belongs to’ the non-rational part of the soul? Or does he mean that practical wisdom belongs to the rational part, virtue of character to the non-rational part, and that generosity involves both? If the latter, then we agree. My claim that ‘practical wisdom and the habituated dispositions of the virtues of character work together’ meant just what it says. Russell reads into it the idea that the virtues of character constitute ‘their own forms of rational self-direction’. I am not sure what that means, but I certainly intended nothing like it.

One final point. Russell was shocked by my placing of brackets around 1144b32-1145a2, claiming that I am representing ‘the seminal passage for Aristotle’s argument for the reciprocity of the moral virtues’ as ‘an afterthought’. Well, the argument has already happened by this stage, resting as it does on the natural/real distinction, and on the account of the involvement of practical wisdom in virtue. Aristotle is merely drawing out its implications for the debate concerning the reciprocity of the virtues. I used the parenthesis because the passage reads to me as an aside in a discussion the main subject of which is the relation between virtue and practical wisdom. And it is that discussion, along with I.13, which Russell might benefit from reading again.