BMCR 2008.03.23

Aristotle and Beyond: Essays on Metaphysics and Ethics

, Aristotle and beyond : essays on metaphysics and ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x, 203 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521870245 $85.00.

Table of Contents

Sarah Broadie is well known for her publications on Aristotle’s philosophy of nature (as S. Waterlow: Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics and Passage and Possibility: a study of Aristotle’s modal concepts, both 1984) and more recently on his ethics ( Ethics with Aristotle, 1991, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: Philosophical Introduction and Commentary, with a new translation by Christopher Rowe, 2002). This volume contains a selection of her papers on these topics. Of the twelve nine have been previously published, and a tenth is a revision of a published paper. They are characterised by the way in which they compare Aristotelian perspectives with modern philosophical ones, a way which helps both the student of Aristotle and the contemporary philosophical enquirer, in the former case by highlighting how Aristotle’s approaches and assumptions differ from our own, in the latter by highlighting the possibility of framing questions without taking the assumptions of contemporary discourse for granted. As the short preface indicates, there is a detectable movement from straightforward philosophising in the earlier papers to a more direct engagement with the ancient texts in the later ones, though the increase in the latter aspect does not mean a diminution in the former. A recurrent feature in B.’s discussions is reference to the activity of teaching students and to their initial reactions on specific points (e.g. 35, 101). In philosophy, and in the humanities generally, the experience of teaching can prompt reflection and so inform research, just as research can inform teaching—something which those in positions of authority are not always able, or willing, to recognise.

The first chapter, “Affecting and being affected”, examines the formal criteria for identifying verbs whose action can be said to affect their objects—an investigation prompted, as the Preface to the whole volume indicates, by Plato, Sophist 248ae, though as the Preface also says it is a piece characteristic of its time (1970), being an exercise in linguistic analysis without specific reference to ancient texts. The second chapter, “Backwards causation and continuing”, is similarly not explicitly concerned with ancient philosophy; it argues that the causation of what is later in time by what is earlier requires the continued existence of the latter, and that the causation of what is earlier in time by what is later therefore requires the impossible notion of the latter continuing to exist before it comes into being.

The third chapter, “From necessity to fate. An inevitable step?”, is one in which I must declare a special interest, both in the sense that it has previously appeared in a volume edited by myself, and in terms of its topic. Starting from the Lazy Argument, B. examines the relation between determinism, fate and what she aptly labels as “futilism”, the belief that nothing we can do can affect a specific future outcome. Rightly observing that Stoic determinism does not imply futilism, she draws attention to the way in which, if a particular outcome were repeatedly thwarted by apparently chance events, we would begin to suspect that some purpose was at work which we could not hope to outsmart; and she argues that from an Aristotelian perspective where, as On Coming-to-Be and Passing-Away 2.11 shows, necessitation starts from the end rather than from the means, Alexander of Aphrodisias is right in disregarding (usually) the Stoic claim that futilism is avoided because some future outcomes are only fated to occur through our actions. For, from the Aristotelian perspective, to say that the outcomes are necessary already means that they will come about somehow. There is, I think, an alternative explanation of Alexander’s approach, namely that he regards the claim that some future outcomes are only fated to occur through our actions as irrelevant or empty, given that those actions are themselves predetermined, and so—in his view, though not in that of the Stoics—not our responsibility at all. On either view Alexander falls short of the standards of sympathetic interpretation of an opposing view that might be expected of a contemporary philosopher, but in the context of ancient controversy that is hardly surprising.

Chapter 4, “Alternative world-histories”, examines the problem, already raised in chapter 3, of counterfactuals and the problem, for those who oppose the actual history of the world to alternative possible worlds and also hold, as determinists do and others may, that history does not develop and divide into different branches, of identifying which alternative history or histories should be contrasted with the one we actually bring about through our actions. Chapter 5, “Aristotle’s Changing Now”, argues that we should not read into Aristotle the picture of the present instant travelling through a single series of times each of which is first future and then becomes past; rather, we should give full weight to the idea that the present separates two series of times, the shortening future and the lengthening past. This has, as B. shows, the paradoxical (for us) consequence that a specific time that is now future can only be said to be later than another which is now past by relating them both to the present, and not directly. But it is in tune both with Aristotle’s approach elsewhere — a line is not divided by a single point, rather the point is double in being the end-point of each part of the line ( Physics 8.8 263a23ff., cf. De anima 3.2 427a9ff.) — and with ancient intuitions generally (what we regard as a single scale of temperatures is for the ancient Greeks a pair of opposites, hot and cold.) Indeed, at Physics 6.3 234a5ff. (not I think mentioned by B.; regrettably, the book has no index locorum) Aristotle finds it necessary to discuss whether the now that is the limit of the past and the now that is the limit of the future are identical or not. (His answer is that they are.)

In chapter 6, “Nature and craft in Aristotelian teleology”, B. defends Aristotle against the charge of introducing conscious purpose into natural teleology. She compares nature with the craftsman who, as craftsman, does not have to deliberate, and then argues that the latter notion involves an unreal abstraction, suited not so much to actual craftsmen as to “end-directed automation” (100). In the course of her argument B. opposes the idea that the locus of purpose for Aristotle is the world as a whole, regarded as a single system, though recognising that there are some passages that point in this direction.1 For, B. argues, this would threaten the metaphysical independence of natural substances (91). It may seem surprising, then, that Alexander of Aphrodisias, who as Marwan Rashed has shown emphasises the role of substances, or rather of the distinct species of which they are members,2 should nevertheless follow post-Aristotelian tradition (e.g. Theophrastus in his Metaphysics, and the De mundo) in emphasising the notion of the world as a single system. But this may just indicate that his achievement in breaking free on the first issue from the Stoicising tendencies of Boethus of Sidon (the Peripatetic), for whom form and soul were quality rather than substance, was not matched by an ability to move away altogether from the Stoic perspective on the second — a conclusion which may be supported by the fact that Alexander’s (and the De mundo‘s) analysis emphasises efficient causation rather than final causation in accounting for the unity of the world. In chapter 7, “Soul and body in Plato and Descartes”, B. contrasts the different answers of the two philosophers to the question why souls have bodies even though they are separable from them.

The remaining five chapters are concerned with ethics. Ch.8, “Aristotle and contemporary ethics”, surveys Aristotle’s approach and ways in which it differs from familiar modern ones. B.’s answer to the question why Aristotle has no apparent response to those who simply deny that moral virtue is necessary for human flourishing is that he simply assumes—or hopes for (116)—an audience already inclined to share this view in practice, even if not in theoretical debate. This is surely right, but one cannot help wondering what had happened between the later fifth century and Aristotle’s time to make this issue a less pressing one, especially when B. writes (118) that (by Aristotle’s time) views other than those he assumed “probably represent[ed] minority opinions”.

More generally, B. notes that Aristotle does not share our anxieties about the epistemological status of ethical propositions. She attributes our anxieties to “inordinate respect for natural science”, which she describes as “an attitude of philosophers, not of scientists as such” (122). I am less persuaded than she of the truth of the latter half of this claim, and also think that, on a practical as opposed to theoretical level, inordinate respect for the reductivist ambitions of economics, a social “science”, are at least as great a threat to ethical considerations; but this is not the place to develop that point more fully.

B. concludes ch. 8 with the theme of Aristotelian leisure, taken up more fully in ch.12, her inaugural lecture. She suggests that the topic of leisure has been neglected in contemporary ethical discussion because to discuss its proper uses “may seem uncomfortably close to legislating how people should use their leisure-time” (133). To this she responds “if for a moment we allow ourselves the phrase ‘the purpose of leisure’: why should that set one on the path of telling people what to do any more threateningly than a question about ‘the purpose of art’?” The answer is surely that, to the contemporary managerialist mind, to say that something has a purpose is to describe it as an instrument that can be used for achieving some end or other, and the idea that it may sometimes be better to hold back from the interventionist use of every available instrument on every possible occasion —”live and let live”, in other terms — seems like the alien wisdom of a vanished age.

In speaking of leisure Aristotle was addressing a select few who were (as he explicitly recognises; Metaphysics A1 981b20-25) supported by the rest of society, but whose position was the result of social and economic status, and whose activities did not therefore have to be justified to the rest of society even if the status itself might sometimes be challenged.3 Significantly enough, B. in ch.12 (197-198) speaks of patrons: patronage, whether public or private, brings with it the demand for justification of the activities themselves. Her list of leisure activities, defined as non-practical ones, includes (194) astronomy, “pure mathematics, the abstract branches of philosophy and science … historiography”, the value of which does not always seem apparent to our contemporary political masters.

The notion that every human activity should be assessed in terms of the maximisation of a single good, for example wealth, relates directly to the theme of B.’s chs. 9-11, on the supreme good, identified by Aristotle with “happiness” or, as B. rightly prefers (114), “flourishing”, and thus shows, if indeed it needed to be shown, that interpretation of Aristotle’s position is not of purely antiquarian interest. B. argues that for Aristotle the supreme good is not what we should aim at in all our actions, only that which should always trump other goods when the two come into conflict (145, 173), and that the relation of the supreme good to other goods is that it is its presence alone that makes them worth having (144, 147, 174-177). If this is right, as I think it is, Aristotle’s ancient successors, in debating whether bodily and external goods were related to the supreme good as parts of it or as instruments for its achievement,4 were already missing his point in the ways that B. presents as modern (141-142).

Chapter 3, as already mentioned, has previously appeared in a volume edited by myself. That volume was a retrospective collection of S.V. Keeling Memorial Lectures given at UCL. The remit for these Lectures, in accordance with the wishes of the donor and Keeling’s own interests, is that they should show how the study of ancient philosophical texts can contribute to contemporary philosophical discussion. Not only this chapter but all the chapters in B.’s book amply exemplify this and will be of interest both to Aristotelian specialists and to contemporary philosophers.


1. For example, Λ 10 1075a11-25, B. 98 n.19; cf. D.J. Furley, ‘Aristotle and the Atomists on forms and final causes’, in R.W. Sharples, ed., Perspectives on Greek Philosophy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 70-84.

2. M. Rashed, Essentialisme: Alexandre d’Aphrodise entre logique, physique et cosmologie, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007.

3. In Greece at any rate; the Egyptian priests referred to by Aristotle may be a more complicated case, since they were defined by their performance of specific activities.

4. See J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 413-416.