BMCR 2020.01.06

Phantasia in Aristotle’s Ethics. Reception in the Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin Traditions. Bloomsbury Studies in the Aristotelian Tradition

, Phantasia in Aristotle’s Ethics. Reception in the Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin Traditions. Bloomsbury Studies in the Aristotelian Tradition. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. vi, 175. ISBN 9781350028005 £91.80.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book is for the most part a collection of papers presented at a seminar at the University of Gothenburg. They are centred around a single passage of the Nicomachean Ethics and discuss the relevance of phantasia in ethics in ancient and medieval traditions.

In the passage Aristotle makes a striking claim concerning the limitations of the appearance of moral principles. He says: τῷ δὲ διεφθαρμένῳ δι᾽ ἡδονὴν ἢ λύπην εὐθὺς οὐ φαίνεται ἀρχή (‘but the principle does not immediately appear to the person who has been corrupted by pleasure or pain’, EN VI.5, 1140b17-18; translated by J. Fink). As it stands, the sentence raises many questions. It will suffice to take a few samples. Does ‘the principle’ belong to action or to deliberation? What is the force of the εὐθύς? What is the mechanism of appearance? What kind of person is under discussion, the vicious or the acratic? Unfortunately, as is emphasized by J. L. Fink and J. Moss in their introduction, modern commentators by and large neglect the issue, in sharp contrast to approaches in the late antique and early medieval period. But renewed interest in ethical imagination may have helped us to pay more attention to Aristotle’s remarks. If we take the verb φαίνεται to refer to the capacity of φαντασία, we have to endorse the view that bad moral character is due to the failing of the non-intellectual, emotional capacity of the soul, not to the failing of our intellectual capacity. It implies that emotion does play a crucial role in moral cognition.

Frans de Haas discusses the notion of ‘what appears good to us’ in Aspasius and Alexander of Aphrodisias. Although we do not have their comments – if there were any – on Book 6, there are passages that give us some clues as to their views. Discussing Aristotle’s notion of the goal of rational wish ( EN III.4; see In EN 79.26-7 Heylbut), Aspasius does not suggest that the good is the simply and truly βουλητόν, while the apparent good is what each individual wishes for. Instead, he separates the notion of ‘by nature’ from the notion of βουλητόν. He argues (78.28-79.5) that just as there is no absolute health so there is nothing that appears as an absolute good or an absolute βουλητόν to everyone. It does not make the good relative, since the criterion for goodness lies with nature. It is important that Aspasius lays less emphasis on the limited responsibility of nature, as opposed to out own greater responsibility for habituation by repeated voluntary actions.1 Alexander of Aphrodisias makes a somewhat different point. He uses the concepts of potentiality and actuality to elucidate natural endowment in the acquisition of virtue ( Quaestiones ethicae 29, 161.14-29 Bruns). Just as in the case of skills, we are born with the potentiality to acquire virtue, but we need to try to possess it by our own efforts, for which we are responsible. As a consequence, even if what appears good or bad to us depends on our character, we have the innate capacity to modify it and develop ourselves through our actions ( De fato 199.24-30, 200.2-7 Bruns). After giving a fine overview of the Nachleben of Aristotle’s ethics in the Muslim world, Frédérique Woerther analyses Averroes’ Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s work. The commentator’s general aim was to reformulate the EN in a less ambiguous way without developing more general theses or establishing all the possible links with Aristotle’s other treatises. This may be due to the characteristic of the genre, which does not allow for detailed analysis of the arguments. On the other hand, the text is not a paraphrase either. The two extant translations, Hebrew and Latin, do not show many discrepancies, which gives us a relatively safe ground for interpretation even if the Arabic original has not survived. Woerther examines other passages dealing with φαντασία as well. She points out that Averroes takes φρόνησις to be one of the kinds of φαντασία. The reason is that practical insight is concerned with the particulars which connects it to the perceptual faculty. The terminology also shows that the commentator relied on two translations of the EN, one of books I-IV, another of V-X, each made by different scholars.

We have quite a few texts relating to the EN from the Byzantine period. Michele Trizio concentrates on Eustratius of Nicaea’s commentary, the only extant work that contains a longer note on the passage. In general, he emphasizes that it is far from clear whether the Byzantine commentaries were connected to teaching purposes or whether they were the upshot of private scholarly investigations. Interpreting our passage, Eustratius does not seem to refer to φαντασία. Instead, he takes it to refer to φρόνησις and says that by ‘principle’ we have to mean the final cause ( in EN 311.29-312.25 Heylbut; see also 26.11-17). He also connects the passages to EN VI.12, 1144a28-31, where Aristotle discusses practical insight as evolving from cleverness (δεινότης), which is called the ‘eye of the soul’. In Eustratius’ interpretation, this eye can be blinded by a dominating passion. The commentator understands φαίνεται in the EN passage as standing metaphorically for the intellect’s grasping the principles.2

The medieval tradition on Aristotle’s ethical work is immense. Iacopo Costa singles out three authors, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Radulphus Brito. He gives a useful overview of the points in Aristotle’s theory expressed in the passage and emphasizes three theses; φρόνησις knows the ultimate end without restrictions, it issues orders regarding both the means and the end, and φρόνησις and moral virtue not only follow one another but they make each other mutually possible as well. Albert the Great, who wrote the first complete commentary on the EN in the Latin West, expresses the corrupting effect of pleasure and pain in terms of a practical syllogism governed by the imperative force of prudentia, which appears both in the major premise and in the conclusion. Pleasure does not directly affect universal knowledge as expressed in the major premise. Instead, it affects the minor premise and thus the conclusion. Thomas Aquinas stresses that pleasure makes the agent judge the object of moral action in a different way. He elaborates on the thesis in De malo 15.4 in a theological way by saying that, as a sin, lust ( luxuria) destroys the acts of practical reason as well as the desire for ends and for the means producing the means towards the end. Albert’s views influenced Radulphus Brito, who claims in the second version of his commentary on EN (Questions 166-167, Book 7) that acratic action depends on judgement. This is in line with his intellectualist position, according to which the evaluation of the minor premise in a practical syllogism is made by the intellect and finally approved and executed by the will. This does not leave much room for φαντασία as a significant factor.

The Hebrew translations and commentaries similarly do not emphasize the importance of the representational faculty in the process of decision-making either. (Instead, φαντασία is discussed in the context of prophecy and dreams.) As Chaim Meir Neria shows, the Hebrew tradition was much influenced by Muslim and Latin Scholastic material on the one hand, while containing lots of references both to the Bible and to later rabbinic authors on the other. This double legacy explains, e.g., the variety of ways of rendering the term σωφροσύνη: among others, ‘fear of sin’ ( yir ̓ aṯ ḥēṭ, alluding to the Bible), or ‘contentment’ ( histappkut, drawing on Grosseteste’s temperantia). Joseph b. Shem-Ṭob, who wrote a commentary on the Hebrew translation of the EN, including a discussion of φαντασία, uses much rabbinic material in order to help the reader accept Aristotle’s argument. He reaches a conclusion similar to Aristotle’s that beliefs in areas subjected to scientific demonstration are not to be corrupted by love or hatred, i.e. pleasure or grief. The sermons of Rabbai Isaac ‘Arama witness the interest in Aristotle’s ethics among authors of homiletical works as well. ‘Arama also stresses that excess in pleasure and grief has the power to corrupt judgement.

Finally, in a less historically oriented study, Fink himself criticizes the intellectualistic approach and sets out to show, rightly, that a fuller understanding of φρόνησις requires an investigation into the nature of φαντασία. His analysis of deliberative φαντασία indicates that it has a crucial role, not only in individual action, but also in character formation as well. He credited it with the job of combining more φαντάσματα into a single φάντασμα.3 The close connection between habituation and the φαντασία of moral principles manifests itself in the description of the process leading from habits to character. Habits convey a moral φαντασία that is still flexible, whereas character implies a stable φαντασία of moral principles. Fink also insists that Aristotle’s theory of motivation is hedonistic only insofar as pleasure and pain are the efficient causes of action, but this does not mean that they must be the final causes as well, given that the noble or the beneficial can also play that role. Moral blindness characterizes the person to whom εὐθὺς οὐ φαίνεται ἀρχή – which means that his perceptual disposition does not allow him to discriminate anything that could motivate him to act.

The book is furnished with a rich bibliography and three indices, of names, passages and terms. It is a welcome and well-argued enterprise to discuss the fate of a particularly interesting Aristotelian notion through the ages.


1. For this reason Aspasius also stresses that it is not φαντασία but individual nature makes us see our end and good (79.10-12). But he also makes it clear that our individual nature is not fixed for good. It is able to achieve correction (79.33-80.1), which invites the question of the role of φαντασία in the corrective process.

2. One might wonder if Eustratius has anything to say about the role of φαντασία in the process described in 1140b17-18. His discussion on φαντασία (meaning, I believe, both representational image and representational activity) in 158.4-25 (see also 157.21-24) may be helpful here.

3. I am not quite sure if the expression ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ ( De anima III.11, 434a11) necessitates such an interpretation (instead of assuming an ordered sequence of singular φαντάσματα – e.g. imagining possible scenarios). If it does, however, one might raise a question about the relation between deliberative φαντασία and ἐμπειρία.