BMCR 2012.04.20

Une morale pour les mortels: l’éthique de Platon et d’Aristote. L’Âne d’or

, Une morale pour les mortels: l'éthique de Platon et d'Aristote. L'Âne d'or. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. 407. ISBN 9782251420455 €39.00 (pb).

This broad, stimulating, and invaluable study by Anne Merker follows a historical and conceptual path, organized into an introduction, four chapters and a conclusion,1 and covers the entire ethical reflection of Plato and Aristotle and indeed many of the most meaningful conceptual articulations of the thought of the two philosophers, beginning with the observation – with which all can readily agree – that in ancient philosophy everything revolves around the question of “how to live.”

Merker’s strongly theoretical-conceptual approach never lacks in historical rigour, as seen in her constant attention to the texts and their Wirkungsgeschichte, and in her many forays into semantic and etymological reconstruction of terms, as well as in her success in the difficult and courageous effort to break with well-established clichés.

The path starts with the premise that Platonic and Aristotelian ethics share deep similarities that are much deeper than has been granted by the interpretative koinè, without denying some radical and “frontal” differences of thought in the two philosophers.2 Both ethics unfold at a fundamental juncture, the meeting point between desire (which so constituted the heart of the moral philosophy of the ancients that intellectualism should be primarily considered an orexism) and death, since every human life is intrinsically marked by death, and since life without mortality would leave no space for desire and action: “le désir est à l’origine de tout mouvement et de toute action. C’est donc lui qui ouvre l’espace dans lequel se déploie la morale” (p. 14). The union of thought and desire, which is understood as “remedy for the menace of death that is in us,” gives rise to an ethics based not on duty (“tu dois”), but rather on “il faut” (δεῖ, χρή). This is a moral theory founded on the striving of desire, the absence of perfection and, therefore, the awareness of limitation, as Merker shows through attentive restoration of the original meanings of the terms. One of the terms explored is the fundamental one of “good,” the original meaning of which, Merker reminds us, not only has nothing to do with angélisme, but is not even limited to the moral sphere;3 rather, it is an agathon intrinsically linked to desire and to endeia, lack. In fact, Merker retrieves the original meaning of the term “good”, in its power to attract and connect desire to virtue. Merker dedicates many pages of remarkable conceptual importance to this theme of the power of the good, reconstructing the whole panorama of its articulations and of its multiple roles and values (immanent, intransitive, transitive and extrinsic). She contrasts the theme of power, an issue at the heart of the sophistic genealogy of morality, with impotence and the morality of “anandria”, the “privation of virility”), that is, the morality of the majority, masterfully described in the pages of Plato’s Gorgias.

A further point examined by Merker in great detail and from a number of points of view is that of the intrinsic complexity of human life, which, as rightly stated, “n’est pas seulement complexe: elle est multiple” (p. 165). This multiplicity is founded on that of human nature itself, which prompts the multiplication of an originally simple desire4 and is key to the complex issue of the split between real and apparent good,5 and also powerfully affects ethics and politics, giving rise to a plurality of lives and eudaimonistic scenarios which are all, albeit in different ways, “human”, as becomes clear from the picture offered in the tenth book of the “Nicomachean Ethics”. In fact, in one sense, the contemplative life, exercised by that most true “self” that is thought, is human. In another sense, so is the active life, realized by the application of the “thinking desire” that defines the practical virtues. This plurality, Merker rightly stresses through an absolutely valid hermeneutic key founded on the “et-et” (“soit-soit”), neither determines a priori views nor gives rise to imagined contradictions, given that both the scenarios in question are legitimized by her anthropological point of departure.

“Puisque la vie humaine est dédoublée, le bonheur l’est aussi. Il est ‘soit’ la vie contemplative réussie, ‘soit’ la vie pratique réussie… la tension n’est pas résolue entre les deux biens ultimes… elle n’a pas à être résolue. Il n’y a pas là contradiction ou inachèvement de la pensée d’Aristote. ‘Il s’agit du caractère foncièrement problématique de l’humanité elle-même, et non d’un accident doctrinal ou de l’insuffisance d’un penseur’” (p. 169).

This irreducible multiplicity is found both on the horizontal level and on the vertical one, since the human soul harbours both superhuman psychic elements (the intellect) and infrahuman ones.6 This multiplicity determines a situation that makes of the human being an unicum on the entire scale of living beings, halfway between God and beasts, a human being that, while not the only living being endowed with thought, is, however, the only one in which this “nous” proves to be mortal and imperfect and in which thought has to interact with desire, giving rise to that admirable alchemy between orexis and nous that is choice.

Merker carefully examines choice in its conceptual and semantic articulations, and recovers its original meaning of “hold” (from hairesis), which she rightly identifies as the heart of praxis, since not only every choice but also every action is a “hold,” and as such is not at the beginning of the two antithetical movements, pursuit and escape. In fact, choice “is not in front of” the two alternatives, but it “is in one” of them. For that matter, the topic of choice has fundamental ramifications for the crucial theme of the voluntariness and involuntariness of evil, in its historical, conceptual, anthropological and juridical implications. In a detailed analysis, principally in the chapter “Nul n’est méchant de plein gré,” Merker grapples with the “vexata quaestio” of responsibility and/or ignorance of evil, and with the Socratic paradox of the involuntariness of evil, especially as it is developed by Plato and Aristotle.

Another important thematic touchstone of the book is her examination of the broad and detailed notion of virtue, which understood by both Plato and Aristotle as “good functioning”, as “good condition” in which any reality, animate or inanimate, comes to find itself, and also understood as what concerns the interestof the human being). She clearly describes the conceptual torsions and movements caused by the different “visual angles” from which a question is approached, summarizing these in a very useful table (p. 172). Virtue is very strictly linked to the complex notion of pleasure, an element that, as Merker rightly emphasizes, neither Plato nor Aristotle (albeit with different evaluations of pleasure, genesis for Plato and energeia for Aristotle) intend in any way to take away from human life, for both view pleasure as a good “in and of itself, and as such.” While, on the one hand, pleasure serves as connection between the two fundamental notions of good and desire, on the other hand, for both philosophers it is intimately linked to telos, though it does not constitute the telos itself. Thus we see that Plato and Aristotle have a concordia discors on pleasure, which has important consequences for theology (since the Master does not admit the possibility that the Gods feel pleasure, while his student does). This difference, Merker rightly stresses, has no effect on the ethical level: “la définition du plaisir proposée par Aristote est irréconciliable avec cette de Platon, mais cette divergence n’a aucun effet quant à l’éthique et la vie humaine dans son ensemble” (p. 206).

Thus we see life explored in all its winding ways by the ethical reflections of the two philosophers, whose thought reaches heaven, but in both cases is also anchored strongly to the earth, and who never forget “the weight of the body,” the needs and limits of a finite, mortal and imperfect human being. Aristotle and Plato root their ethical reflections in this condition humaine of “being at fault,” and Merker aims to free Plato of the over-simple label of “idealist” and to see him anew in all his complexity of a thinker who, yes, is “idealist”, but also “utilitarian,” “pragmatic” and “realist.”

It seems to me that the methodology and the “winning” hermeneutical approach of this persuasive study by Anne Merker are characterized by the need to distinguish the levels and to take into consideration the different spheres of reflection. In this sense Merker manages to clarify many of the claimed contradictions, as well as to respect, “without reducing,” the numerous ontological and argumentative levels of the two philosophers. In other words this study fully manages to give voice, to borrow Aristotle’s famous expression, to “pollachos legomenon”, that is the “many ways to be and to speak of the real.”


1. Introduction: La mort, le désir et la morale; Chapter I: ‘Il faut’; Chapter II: Le Bien; Chapter III: L’hégémonie de la Pensée; Chapter IV: ‘Nul n’est méchant de plein gré’; Conclusion: ‘Intellectualisme moral’.

2. Among these is, for instance, the opposition, which Merker defines as “frontal,” on the topic of the Good, and on some aspects of the question of pleasure, to which I will return below.

3. On the contrary, Merker observes, the good has become the “Good”, and this result has been “catastrophic” for the understanding of the morality of the ancients (p. 81).

4. “Le désir en sa simplicité originelle, fait de manque et de tension, né de Pauverté et d’Expédient, se trouve engagé dans le labyrinthe de la complexité dont l’humanité de l’être humain est constituée” (p. 221).

5. “Le bien se dédouble en bien réel et en bien apparent, et ce, d’abord à cause de la complexité. Le bien apparent est notamment le bien en tant qu’il apparaît aux organes des sens dont l’être humain est constitué, et le bien est alors, dans son apparaître aux sens: le plaisir” (p. 103).

6. “L’être humain, en tant qu’il est un animal doué de raison, est donc d’abord un animal, et il est aussi plante d’une certaine manière. La vie humaine contient en conséquence toute la complexité de la vie de l’animal, qui englobe les fonctions végétatives” (p. 162).