BMCR 2012.07.34

Action, Contemplation, and Happiness: an Essay on Aristotle

, Action, Contemplation, and Happiness: an Essay on Aristotle. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012. xiv, 299. ISBN 9780674063730. $49.95.

The focus of this carefully structured monograph is Aristotle’s philosophy of human action, especially in its normative dimension. Much like in his previous monographs on Aristotle’s metaphysics ( Substantial Knowledge, 2000) and Aristotle’s ethics ( The Practices of Reason, 1992), Reeve strives to situate his main topics within the widest possible Aristotelian framework. Thus, he draws upon material from the entire corpus to help explicate the specific texts offered in support of his overall interpretation. As Reeve allows, this approach means ignoring any developmentalism in the corpus, or at least any that is potentially relevant to the ethical doctrines. Thus, there is nothing regarding the question of the priority and posteriority of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. The Protrepticus is employed as if it were contemporaneous with these works, and the Magna Moralia is, apparently, treated as genuine. I am very far from insisting that this way of presenting Aristotle’s philosophy is misguided. It does, however, elicit the question of what we are actually to suppose ‘Aristotelianism’ to be. For example, the Protrepticus is usually taken as a work of Aristotle’s early period when he was still working in the shadow of Plato, and the Nicomachean Ethics as a much later work when Aristotle was treating ethical issues in a way far less congenial to Platonism. Reeve actually resists the ‘de-Platonizing’ of Aristotle, but I would have liked to have seen the case for this spelled out more fully. This is particularly important when treating books 9 and 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics and the implications of their exhortation to ‘immortalization’. Reeve is in my view exactly right to take Aristotle seriously here, though he says little about the particularly shocking implication that we—Aristotle, Reeve, and their readers—are not, after all, really human beings, but rather intellects, whether or to what extent these are separable or not.

Most puzzling to me is the intended audience for this book. If that audience are those seeking an introduction to Aristotle’s ethical theory, it seems that Reeve already wrote that book 20 years ago. If the intended audience are those seeking an overall introduction to Aristotle’s philosophy, then this book falls short since, naturally enough, many topics are left out or treated only briefly for the sake of the context of the main themes. Besides, the work is far too complex for an introduction. Nor is the book aiming to break new ground in the study of some of the perennial questions regarding Aristotle’s account of human nature and human happiness. Reeve relies very heavily and, I might add, judiciously, on the latest contemporary scholarship as would befit the purpose of an introduction but would be out of place in an original interpretative work, except of course insofar as the author engaged these other scholars in an adversarial capacity. In asking myself the question, ‘to whom could I recommend this book?’ my best answer is one of my academic colleagues who already knows something of Aristotle’s ethics and theory of action but who doesn’t have a very clear picture of the metaphysical and epistemological background to these. I am certainly not suggesting that this is an unworthy audience, but I wish Reeve had been clearer about whom he thinks he is addressing.

The book is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter immediately reveals Reeve’s commitment to a bottom-up reconstruction of Aristotle’s philosophy of human action. It treats of the transmission of form in all its varieties on the grounds that this transmission—either from world to soul in the case of perception and understanding or from soul to world in the case of desire and action—is the central physical occurrence upon which rest all of Aristotle’s reflections on what is distinctively human. Some complex topics in biology, celestial mechanics, and psychology are inevitably treated in a fairly cursory manner, though I suppose my imagined reader would discover that Aristotle’s concept of form is extremely powerful and subtly varied and, most interestingly, readily translatable into the language of contemporary information-theory.

The second chapter is an extended commentary on a single sentence in the Nicomachean Ethics : ‘Three things in the soul control action and truth—perception, understanding, and desire (VI 2, 1139a17-18).’ In fact, this extended commentary encompasses chapters 3, 4, and 5 as well, considerably more than half of the book. In this elementary though sophisticated and wide ranging account of a number of specific topics, Reeve puts his mastery of all the relevant material to effective use. The reader is constantly urged to think about Aristotle’s claims in the widest possible context. Although De Anima is naturally the main text discussed, the biological writings, the Parva Naturalia, and even the Posterior Analytics are regularly brought in to reinforce the account of fundamental principles. Occasionally, Reeve surprises with an unconvincing interpretation. He writes, for example, ‘[i]n explaining why human beings have a better functioning understanding than other animals, Aristotle appeals not to understanding itself but to material processes in the body’ (54) and then quotes a long passage from Parts of Animals. But in a passage in De Anima 3.4 that Reeve himself quotes just two pages earlier, Aristotle claims that it is absurd to suppose that intellect ( nous), the part with which we think, is ‘blended with a body’. That is, it is the possession of an immaterial intellect that sets us apart from animals such that animals cannot even have beliefs ( doxai) or conviction ( pistis). This seems a particularly important point to emphasize given the ensuing discussion of the role of intellect in human destiny.

The third chapter deals with theoretical wisdom ( sophia), obviously relevant to the account of contemplation and the happiest life. Although Reeve’s discussion of scientific knowledge ( epistēmē) and the grasp of first principles is mostly beyond reproach, there are several occasions where he is at best misleading and at worst simply mistaken. For example, Reeve uses the same term, ‘knowledge’, for what he calls ‘craft knowledge’ and ‘scientific knowledge’ (59). I take it that by ‘craft knowledge’ what Reeve means is what Aristotle calls technē. But Aristotle sharply distinguishes technē and epistēmē, stating that the former concerns the realm of becoming, whereas the latter concerns the realm of being (see Posterior Analytics II 19, 100a8). Again, Reeve refers to the distinction between what he calls ‘objectural’ and ‘nonobjectural’ truth (64), wherein the former is a property of being and the latter a property of propositions, statements, or thoughts. But Reeve identifies the former as a property of ‘particulars, universals, or combinations of them’. It seems to me that this is at least misleading, since universals do not have an extra-mental existence for Aristotle. Next, the penultimate section of this chapter is titled ‘natural, mathematical, and theoretical sciences’ (84), which is certainly odd, since the theoretical sciences include the first two mentioned, and the only other theoretical science Aristotle recognizes is theology. Finally, there is the puzzling claim made at the end of the chapter, that uniquely in the case of God, the fact that he exists and the reason why he exists are the same (92). I don’t quite get the point that is being made here with the words ‘why he exists’, since for any necessary being, like a mathematical object, why it exists could only mean ‘why it necessarily exists’ given that it does exist.

Chapters four and five focus on ethical virtue and practical wisdom. The account of ethical virtue is, again, unremarkable, but in my opinion mostly sound. Reeve manages to sidestep a number of highly contentious issues regarding which there exists already a mountain of scholarship, only lightly touched on in the footnotes. One of these issues is the relation between what Aristotle calls ‘the reasoning part of the soul’ and the part that ‘listens to reason or obeys it’ (114). It is the latter part wherein virtues of character are located. But exactly what obeying reason without reasoning (or, ‘not being fully rational’, 162-3) is supposed to mean is obscure, and Reeve does not offer much of an explanation, though getting this straight would seem to be essential to understanding how ethical virtue is developed and also how one can fail to achieve it. The peremptory discussion of incontinence might well have been extended to address this issue. Reeve simply asserts without argument the contestable claim of Aristotle that possession of one ethical virtue entails the possession of all (117). The chapter on practical reason is the most fully developed in the book. Reeve argues persuasively for practical wisdom as, in a sense, the intersection of theoretical understanding and ethical virtue (155-61). He is also correct to focus on the individual agent as providing the epistemological link between universal scientific truths about human nature and the particular circumstances of life wherein practical decisions are to be made. This explains why the necessary particularity of practical reasoning does not compromise the universality of ethical principles.

The remaining three chapters of the book focus on human nature rather than on the previous contextualized account of human action. They deal with friendship, the divine element in human nature, and the relative worth of the ways of living or bioi in the quest to discover which one is the happiest. As in the rest of the book, Reeve aims to place his exposition of Aristotle’s doctrine within the wider scientific framework. So, we get a few pages on substance, a few more on form, matter, and change, and some brief discussions of universals, actuality and potentiality, and finally a rather dense discussion of the extremely difficult topic of the productive or active or agent intellect. All of this is a prelude to a discussion of those puzzling passages in books 9 and 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle urges us all to ‘immortalize ourselves’.

Perhaps the most contentious issue in Aristotle scholarship today is whether the exhortation to immortalize ourselves by engaging in the life of the gods, that is, the life of contemplation, is or is not intended to exclude or diminish the ‘merely human life’, particularly the life of political engagement. These are the so-called inclusivist and exclusivist interpretations. Reeve spends a good deal of time, and adduces much useful background from the Metaphysics and elsewhere, to argue for what is very likely to be the correct exegetical, reconciling position, namely, that the apex of the happiest life does indeed reside in the contemplation of the divine, though this life includes in a subordinate role political engagement of various sorts (272-3). As Reeve shows, practical wisdom and political science are properly understood as necessary for constructing a life that maximizes the opportunity for the ‘immortalizing’ activity of contemplation. In conclusion, he does not even shy away from describing this life as approximating a ‘beatific state’ (276), a term not often seen in Aristotelian scholarship.

This book represents a fine display of the author’s grasp of Aristotle’s philosophy, but it is not as useful for readers as it might well have been if a particular group of readers had been clearly identified.