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Ethics After Aristotleethicsafteraristotle

By Brad Inwood
Harvard University Press, 2014

In a discipline where progress is marked by refinement more than refutation, philosophers contend for the right to famous names. Words like Platonist, Thomist, Kantian, and Hegelian will never go out of fashion as terms of praise or opprobrium. For ethicists in particular, the word Aristotelian signifies not merely a historical school but a living tradition – though what that tradition is about, it turns out, may be grounds for a fight.

In Ethics After Aristotle – five lectures delivered to the Harvard Classics Department in 2011 – Brad Inwood recommends Aristotelianism to modern ethicists for unexpected reasons, reasons which necessarily involve him in the semantic fight. To do this, he resorts to careful historical research, an expedient embarrassingly novel among systematic philosophers. With its contemporary relevance and historical nuance, Inwood offers the sort of Janus-faced study the discipline needs, tying its historical and normative branches together. He supports his definition of Aristotelianism by examining the evolution of the only group unquestionably deserving of the title: the Peripatetics. These perambulatory philosophers – their name derived from the habit of walking while talking – were the school founded by Aristotle himself.

But does Inwood’s definition deserve the attention of anyone whose job doesn’t already involve them in the arcana of antiquity? The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, Aristotle stands at the very beginning of an important discipline. His doctrines – and his school – possess great historical interest. Inwood writes:

… as with logic, Aristotle was the first to set relatively clear boundaries to the field of ethics, to identify with some precision high-level principles that define it and provide a framework for working within it, and to make distinctive claims about the field which have had enduring importance.

Second, Aristotle’s primary treatise on the subject, the Nicomachean Ethics, is one of a select company of philosophical classics that reward the non-specialist: it is crisp without being cryptic, detailed without being pedantic, carefully reasoned without being impenetrable, and it presents a vision of human life which has not lost its appeal in the thousands of years since it was penned.

Any morally inquisitive person, and not just the professional philosopher, has a stake in the preservation of Aristotle’s insights. So what are they?

Most scholars would answer by pointing us to virtue ethics. Virtue ethics, along with deontology and consequentialism, is part of a triumvirate of living options for contemporary ethicists. Most philosophers associate themselves with one (or some blend) of the three, or else they abandon the search for a morality altogether with some form of “error theory.” Of the triumvirate, consequentialism is a family of ethical theories according to which the moral value of an act may be determined by its consequences; deontology, on the other hand, is a family of ethical theories which determine the morality of an action in itself – whether, for example, it follows some set of rules – and not by its consequences. Virtue Ethics distinguishes itself from both competitors by refusing to propound a general test or principle for the morality of actions. Instead of actions, virtues ethics concerns itself, unsurprisingly, with virtues. Virtues are stances and habits that most of us generally agree contribute to a good life. For example, courage, honesty, and prudence are virtues. The relevance of all this to the problem of defining Aristotelianism is this: Aristotle was a virtue ethicist.

Inwood readily acknowledges this fact, but disagrees that virtue is the essence of Aristotelianism. True, the Nicomachean Ethics is all about the virtues. But so were most books about ethics before the 18th century. Why distinguish with the appellation “Aristotelian” a kind of ethics common to all philosophers for two millenia?

[I]f much of what contemporary moral theorists regard as Aristotelian was shared by other schools in the ancient world and if much of what was distinctive of Aristotle’s own moral theory is not in fact routinely embraced by modern neo-Aristotelians, then we evidently do need to ask what it is that is supposed to make a theory Aristotelian in the first place.

Inwood’s thesis is that the real core of Aristotelianism is what he calls naturalism. He explains naturalism like this:

In Nicomachean Ethics I.7 Aristotle notoriously deploys something called the “function argument,” which claims that human beings, like other animals, have natural functions, the fulfillment of which constitutes their telos [or purpose], their success conditions as living things – and the achievement of that success condition for humans bears the label “happiness” […] and our function, like that of other animals (and plants as well, perhaps), is rooted in our nature, a set of essential and defining traits whose presence and relevance in our lives is taken to be not open to debate. […] Goodness in human moral terms and goodness in any relevant biological application stand in the same relationship to the nature of the species in question.

We can figure out what makes a good hammer in the same way we can figure out what makes a good human. A good hammer should be strong, easy to grip, and well-balanced because its goal is to whack nails. We could figure this out even if we’d never had hammers explained to us, by playing with and noting the distinctive properties of the hammer. Humans, too, have distinctive properties – notably reason – and ethical naturalism proposes that we can elaborate a perfectly satisfactory morality by trying to be with excellence the kind of thing that, on inspection, we turn out to be.

What’s so great about this? Ethical naturalism avoids tying the purpose of human life to the will of some kind of deity, but neither does it conclude that there is no purpose to human life at all. No other significant ancient ethical tradition could say as much:

Epicureans avoided supernaturalism too, but only […] by abandoning the specialness of human excellence. Stoics had to cheat, if only by invoking a divine cosmic nature along human nature. And as for the Platonists – well, god was all over their conception of the goal of life.

nicomacheanethicsFor precisely the same reason, Inwood thinks Aristotelianism remains a valuable tradition from which today’s philosophers can learn. Both consequentialism and deontology (much like Stoicism and Platonism) require far more than attention to “our species’ natural makeup,” while error theories of ethics (much like Epicureanism) abandon the search for a real morality altogether. In short, the contemporary ethical scene could benefit in precisely the same way that the ancient one did from Aristotelianism. And not just the academic ethical scene. The great quandary of the ever-expanding post-religious part of our society is how and why to be moral without the help of an imperious God. Are our only non-religious options dangerous ideologies or moral nihilism, as fundamentalists never tire of insisting? Not if Aristotelian naturalism has anything to say about it.

But the summary I’ve offered of Inwood’s thesis and its importance fails to approximate the artistry of his presentation. The sentence-level prose, the narrative drive of each lecture, and the architecture of the whole series deserve comment.

The academics to whom Inwood initially presented these lectures must have found them lively indeed, and the energy of his voice transfers well to the page. Most philosophical prose aspiring to the level of nuance here attained is turgid, mired in a swamp of technicalities. As an academic philosopher myself, I can attest to the difficulty of avoiding that style, on the page or in the lecture hall. But Inwood manages the shoals of Greek terminology with aplomb, and occasionally he takes pleasure in skewering the pretensions of academic prose: “it would be useful, though tedious, to catalogue all the post-thises and neo-thats which mark our awareness that unusually powerful and influential thinkers leave a recognizable wake in the generations which follow them.”

The task Inwood sets himself involves a lot of exposition, but he leavens the loaf with strictly unnecessary but much appreciated asides about the thinkers whose ideas he explains. We learn that Lycon of Anatolia, for example (a leader of the peripatetic school) was “an eloquent, witty speaker, a sharp dresser, and a generous, perhaps even lavish, host.”

Characteristic of his choice to adopt a lively and compelling style is Inwood’s refusal to refer to the characters of his history using the technical designations philologists give the authors of unknown works: “A specific nom-de-plume works better, at least for me.” This choice is understandable and works well when “pseudo-Aristotle” becomes “Magnus.” But perhaps Inwood takes his game a bit too far when he chooses to name the author of Doxography C “Harry.” Reading about “Harry” after Cicero and before Seneca is disorienting.

ciceroselectedInwood also excels at arranging his material at a more macroscopic level. Each lecture covers many years, passing from thinker to thinker to survey their innovations in the context of their changing social world and intellectual milieu. Such a procedure could easily go wrong. Few things can be as soporific as the straightforward presentation of minute differences between abstractions. But Inwood has a way of introducing the difficulties he faced in research so that his presentation pulls the reader through like the plot of a mystery. For example, a good bit of chapter 3 is structured as a search for the historical antecedents of the view expressed by Cicero’s character Piso in the dialogue On Goals. Piso is supposed to represent cutting edge Aristotelianism at the time of Cicero’s writing, against which Cicero can sharpen his own contrary beliefs. But Piso expresses ideas unexpectedly original, synthesizing various Peripatetic strands in a way found nowhere in extant pre-Ciceronian literature. With the panache of a Poirot, Inwood unveils his own hypothesis in the last sentence of the chapter: “and if this is so – a view which I hope the reader will at least entertain seriously – it would mean that the overall author of Piso’s account, now revealed as a composite of Aristotelian naturalism and Antiochean rigorism, is Cicero himself.” In the context of the whole chapter, this sentence made me laugh aloud: a twist ending! Cicero the opponent of Aristotelianism turns out to have been an important contributor to the tradition via his dramatic sock puppet.

But the ultimate test of aesthetic excellence is in the whole, not the details. Inwood does not fail the test. To put across his thesis that naturalism rather than virtue is essential to Aristotelianism he presents a long narrative that only gradually reveals the role of naturalism, again adopting the form of a mystery story. Most of the lectures are spent carefully investigating how Aristotle’s immediate successors dealt with a handful of problems that remained ambiguous or were not addressed in the master’s own writings, problems such as whether pleasure is a good thing in itself or only a perk that comes with good things, and whether or not virtue can make a man happy even if he is terribly down on his luck. Inwood tells us how widely the Peripatetics differed about the answer to these questions. The whole thrust of his narrative seems at first designed to show that there isn’t an essence to Aristotelianism because the Peripatetics disagreed too much for there to be. But gradually it becomes clear that the most creative answers to the various problems at stake – however much they differed from each other – always followed from the presupposition of naturalism.

… naturalism is a vital part of the story of Aristotelian ethics, that we can address the challenge of identifying the end and goal of human life […] all without ever invoking a super-natural, cosmological, or theological principle, drawing only on general principles applicable to the sublunary world as a whole.

Naturalism turns out to be the secret of the vitality of Aristotle’s school. Contradictory and surprising theories proliferated among the Peripatetics because they possessed the protean presupposition of naturalism. Because of it, Aristotelians could argue against Stoics and Platonists who drew in all kinds of extraneous theological hypotheses, but also against Epicureans who rejected a distinct human morality altogether. Inwood’s narrative tells the story of Peripatetic naturalism creatively spawning alternatives to each of these extremes through debates which do not directly highlight naturalism itself. As in a good mystery, the puzzle draws the reader deeper and in retrospect all the clues make sense.

The overall form of Inwood’s book is Aristotelian in a more superficial, but pleasing, way. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle asserts that no one can know if a man’s life was happy – if he had achieved the goal of human life – until after he is dead. Inwood suggests the same of Peripatetic ethics. Only in the expiring breath of the real Aristotelians did it become clear what it meant to be an Aristotelian. After the final figure discussed in the book, Aristotelianism was swallowed up as an footnote to the predominating Platonism of late antiquity, like a seed caught in a bird’s feathers to be brought to a soil far in time.

Inwood’s little book implicitly offers the hope that our present ethical thinkers can profit from the posthumous perspective he provides, can resurrect ethical naturalism as the true unexploited essence of Aristotelianism and carry the banner of that name into the future.

Robert Minto is a writer living in Boston. He is a teaching fellow and PhD student in philosophy.