BMCR 2012.11.36

Virtue and Reason in Plato and Aristotle

, Virtue and Reason in Plato and Aristotle. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii, 356. ISBN 9780199609611. $85.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Price here addresses the relation of knowing to acting in the Platonic dialogues and in Aristotle’s works—how knowing what one is aiming at, or knowing the thing or things to do or to avoid, affects acting, or, sometimes, fails to affect it. There are four lettered parts— eudaimonia, virtue, practical reasoning, and akrasia —with each part containing a Platonic chapter (1) and an Aristotelian chapter (2). Price’s overall argument is that, in his authors, unlike in utilitarians, eudaimonia is acting well itself rather than something separate which is the product of some act which might not be very valuable by itself; that virtue conduces to acting well; that practical reasoning also conduces to acting well; and that, in the absence of virtue, practical reasoning may fail. Many scholars have gone over this ground: Price concentrates on recent contributions to the discussion.

In A.1, Price represents eudaimonia in the Platonic dialogues as doing well and living well, arguing that the Platonic view incorporates a “conception of eudaimonia as acting well that is abstract and determinable” (25).

In A.2, Price avers that we shall find in Aristotle “the development of a similar conception” (32), which includes both “the abstract goal of deliberate human actions, one that can be identified with acting well ”, and “an act- sequence forming a concrete whole” (42). He observes that acting well requires favorable circumstances, or, in his words: “Unwelcome circumstances, thereafter, can prevent an agent from being eudaimōn either in general, or in respect of a particular action” (63). Price notes as well that the agent “has dispositions of attention and preference that constitute a character that informs his perceptions of situations and structures his repertory of options” (69). Thus eudaimonia is acting well, and the concept of it is abstract or lacking in content while still attractive (see 80). Price begins Part B, on virtue, by considering the question of the unity of virtue, or of the virtues. With reference to the Protagoras, Price offers three ways of construing this unity: virtue as a single human state; the virtues’ representing one state “in relation to certain risks and opportunities”; and different virtues’ correlating with “different aspects of an agent’s psychology” (86-7). In the second section, Price goes on to virtue and emotion, which he addresses in terms of these three, observing that “emotions are evaluations” (97). In his third section, Price considers the psychology of the Republic. He finds that Plato “does not advance explicitly beyond a division between a rational and a non-rational soul, and this may indicate an awareness that many emotions do not fit well within his tripartition” (105). In his fourth section, Price considers the Republic on the virtues, arguing that, if the soul has a tripartite structure, it must have a virtue of each part. How can this view be reconciled with the unity of the virtues? “The Republic is inexplicit” (108).

In the first two sections of B.2, Price plays down Aristotle’s separation of the rational from the nonrational, allowing that virtue can “speak to reason with a single voice, and hence become its companion in tracing a path that leads to the ultimate human goal of eudaimonia ” (122). In the third section, Price relies on the work of Anselm Müller, who offers a circumstantialist view of the virtues—one in which all the pertinent circumstances must be addressed for an action to be virtuous on net. The fourth section, on the unity of the virtues, argues that, “if an action is to count as virtuous, it must not fail to achieve the mean in any respect” (135). So, for Price, Aristotle is committed to the unity of the virtues in the form of reciprocity: “to have one ethical virtue entails having all ethical virtues” (137). But this view comes at a cost, according to Price: the unity of the virtues “becomes rather an ideal than an actuality” (142). Price amplifies: “Any doctrine of the unity of the virtues must be vulnerable to shifts of perspective, becoming deniable when we turn our eyes to where we actually are, but re-assertible when we raise them again towards where we must aspire to be” (143). In his aspirational discussion, Price appears to be speaking rather for himself than for Aristotle.

In the first section of C.1, the argument is that, in the Lysis, the main “object of attachment or pursuit” (150), which is eudaimonia, leads to the way it can be achieved, and that the Gorgias “clarifies and reclaims” (154) this position, worked out in means-end terms. “When we come to the Meno, we find Socrates changing his position” (160). Price follows Irwin here in distinguishing material from intentional objects of desire; this distinction allows for desiring bad things in the belief that they are good. The third section, on the Republic, considers especially the question whether, for Socrates, appetite can reason, especially in a means-ends way. Price says: “What can happen, if nothing repels it, is that it [appetite] comes to view the means, as well as the end, with pleasure—and so forms a desire for it. If this attitude survives actually realizing the means, viewing with pleasure transposes into enjoying—so that it actually is pleasant to realize the means” (173). The fourth section addresses a view of principles or rules of practical reasoning which Price finds in the dialogues, according to which “concrete rules of conduct cannot define how one should act from occasion to occasion” so that there is “an uneliminable need for the exercise of judgement” (174). In his last section, Price suggests, relying on the Republic and the Philebus, that this judgement can be improved by the study of mathematics and the less exact sciences, which study provides structure to the mind. Thus “practical knowledge is not simply a product of experience or of training, nor of principles or of first principles. It requires an educated rational capacity that can follow inferences, adapt principles to contexts, detect formal relations between situations and options, and so bring to bear within the world of action a mentality that has been remade through the impress both of theory and of practice” (187).

In the first section of C.2, Price attempts to make sense of the end of practical intellect. According to Price’s Aristotle, “he [the agent] consciously deliberates at once for the sake of action, for the sake of achieving his initial goal (if it stands up to scrutiny), and for the sake of acting well. Aristotle does not have to choose between these, for they coincide” (193). In the third section, Price considers the notion of eudaimonia as a “Grand End” (201) and argues that, while it may orient action, it is not a blueprint which would “direct all his [an agent’s] deliberations” (203), since these deliberations must be directed toward “whatever concrete goal a good agent would adopt in the circumstances” (204). The remaining sections in this chapter address a range of questions about practical reasoning.

In D.1, Price traces treatments of akrasia in several dialogues. In the first section, on the Protagoras, he proposes that “Socrates will argue that belief is subject to weakness in perseverance though not in judgement, whereas knowledge is subject to neither” (254). This weakness in perseverance “comes [over time] of deceptive comparisons that can only be reliably corrected by the precision of an ‘art of measurement’ ” (262). Thus, in the second section, still addressing the Protagoras, “ synchronic acrasia is impossible”, though “ diachronic acrasia is possible” (268). In the third section, on the Republic, Price recognizes partition but ultimately argues for the view that “Plato has grounds for privileging reason within the soul in a way that makes its verdict the real voice of the agent” (273).

In D.2, Price concludes with his account of Aristotle on akrasia, pretty much from the standpoint of mental conflict, on which he has written elsewhere—as Price’s title says, “an Aristotelian account that is not Aristotle’s” (281). This account includes both weakness in judgement and weakness in execution (282). In the second section, Price comes to Aristotle’s own account, beginning in 1145b25-9 with reflections on Socrates and continuing into 1146b31-1147b19. According to Price, Aristotle is concerned here with showing, against Socrates, how synchronic akrasia can occur; the akratic agent “is cognitively deficient at the moment of action, and does not then really comprehend that he ought to act otherwise” (286) because the conclusion of the practical syllogism and the final premiss are “simply lacking, or present only vestigially” (296). More precisely, “an affection that cannot stomach a practical conclusion loosens the agent’s grasp upon one of the particular premises. This will preclude genuinely drawing the conclusion, and leave (at most) an enunciating in place of an enacting” (297). In his fifth and last section, after two short sections on interpretative difficulties and alternatives, Price returns to eudaimonia, suggesting that it is central to answering, among others, the question whether one can “act contrary to one’s own judgement” (314), apparently because recognizing eudaimonia as acting well or doing well instead of as a mental state which is produced by acting or doing, such as pleasure (if that is a mental state), helps to clarify the analysis of practical reasoning and the causes of its sometime failure.

While the recent scholarship with which Price engages addresses many issues of continuing interest in these texts, there are other issues associated with the relation of knowing to acting which may merit more attention than they have received in the literature, and whose inclusion might contribute to the argument of the book. One example is the beginning of Aristotle’s treatment of eudaimonia in EN I.4. Price quotes from 1095a14-21 following Ross’s version (57, 201-2) but does not bring out the theme, which Aristotle seems to have in mind, that there is here an expression, eudaimonia, to which there are two quite different responses: verbally ( onomati) “there is very general agreement”, even though “with regard to what happiness is they differ”. What is the character of this general agreement? Against the background of this general agreement, how can the differing views of what eudaimonia is be explained? It seems most likely from the rest of Aristotle’s discussion that the differences, if intellectual in a sense, may have causes that are not intellectual, especially in the emotions. Perhaps many people have a favorable emotive response, which has been acquired over time, to whatever is referred to as eudaimonia, just as modern English speakers have acquired a favorable emotive response to the expression “happiness”, even though they may disagree over what happiness is (or have no idea). People usually do not say that they don’t want to be happy. Aristotle retains the expression to which people respond well while giving it a more precise descriptive meaning of his own, as Price shows. One might expect here a reference to Stevenson, who offered an explanation of this phenomenon, arguing that a descriptively vague expression (such as eudaimonia) might be disposed to produce a favorable emotive response among those who know the language in which it is used and that this favorable emotive response might linger even if the expression were redefined descriptively in the direction of greater precision.1 Aristotle’s redefinition might cause some people to change their behavior; it might be, in Stevenson’s way of speaking, “persuasive”.

Again, the titles of the Platonic chapters—“Plato on . . .”—suggest that Price is committed to the view that “Plato is the author and Socrates his mouthpiece” (268). The dialogues, however, give the positions of fictionalized figures— Socrates, Meno, Gorgias, or whomever. Readers who do not accept the mouthpiece position will have to read these chapters through a filter.

Price clearly is no fan of the utilitarian view, for which he has hard words (“false gods”, 315), although he seems completely comfortable with its characteristic framework of means and ends. And yet, if Fortenbaugh is correct, what often is taken to be means-end language in Aristotle may instead be syllogistic language.2 And means and ends would have different roles, to the extent that they do appear in Aristotle, if the action which would be merely the means to an end in utilitarianism is now the end itself.

The back matter includes thirteen pages of references mainly to books and articles since 1970 along with an index locorum and name and subject indices. This is a book most of all for those who are familiar with the texts and who either know the recent scholarship already or want to be brought approximately up to date on it quickly.

Table of Contents

Part A: Eudaimonia
A1. Plato on Eudaimonia
A2. Aristotle on Eudaimonia
Part B: Virtue
B1. Plato on Virtue
B2. Aristotle on Virtue
Part C: Practical Reasoning
C1. Plato on Practical Reasoning
C2. Aristotle on Practical Reasoning
Part D: Acrasia
D1. Plato on Acrasia
D2. Artistotle on Acrasia


1. C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), especially 210-13.

2. W. W. Fortenbaugh, “ Ta pros to telos and Syllogistic Vocabulary in Aristotle’s Ethics”, Phronesis 10 (1965), 191-201.