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Lecture Eleventh: Aristotle's View of Reason in its Practical Use

IN the last lecture I gave a general view of Aristotle's way of thinking as contrasted with that of Plato. I pointed out that he makes a great advance upon Plato in so far as he frees himself from the tendency to oppose form to matter and soul to body, and thereby initiates a more organic view of the world, and, in particular, of the phenomena of life in all its forms—vegetable, animal and human. But just because he is not able to carry out this new way of thinking to its consequences, in the end he becomes the author of a more definite and pronounced form of dualism than that of Plato. For, though in his philosophy matter gets a more definite position, it is not after all made the true correlate of form. Hence it sinks into an external something which the form needs in order to realise itself, but in which it can only realise itself imperfectly. And even this necessity seems to be denied in the case of the pure intelligence, which is conceived as so complete in itself, that its association with the body is not required for its realisation, but rather, through such association, it is drawn down into a lower kind of activity. It is this view of reason which is the source of the greatest difficulty in Aristotle's psychology; it manifests itself again in his conception of morality and of the relation of the practical to the contemplative life; and, finally, it determines his idea of the nature of God and of his relations to the world.

This will become more completely understood if we follow the line of the ascent to man, which Aristotle traces out for us in the De Anima.

He begins by telling us that there is no proper definition of the soul, if a definition be understood to mean the determination of a generic form which remains identical with itself in all its specific manifestations.1 When we speak of organic beings as having souls, all we mean is that in each of them there is an immanent principle of unity. But this principle takes a different character in all the species that fall under it; for these species are not co-ordinate. On the contrary, they form a series, in which each later member takes up the previous member into itself, but at the same time so transforms it that there is nothing which is common to them all. It might, indeed, be said that what is possessed by the lowest kind of soul is common also to all the higher kinds: but this is not strictly true; for in the higher soul, the lower ceases to be what it was, as it is made sub-ordinate to a different principle of unity, and its own characteristics are thereby completely changed. Thus the life of sensation which is characteristic of animals is not simply added to the nutritive life of plants; it so absorbs and transfigures it, that, though all the elements of the latter are present in the former, none of them is just what it was in the former. And the same is the case when we pass from the sensitive life of animals to the rational life of men. In the transition to a higher stage of development, the elements of the lower stage are preserved, but they are, in the language of Aristotle, reduced to potentiality; they are absorbed and taken up into a new form of being. The individuality of the more imperfect form of existence disappears, as it becomes the material or basis for a new principium individuationis. Hence the different species are connected only by a certain bond of analogy, in so far as the relations of form and matter are the same in all.

To begin at the beginning, the life of plants is a life of nutrition and reproduction, in which the individual assimilates material constituents from its environment to subserve its own existence and thus goes through a course of growth and development, which in the end passes into decay and death. So long as this series of changes goes on, the individual unity of the plant maintains itself, and reproduction is only a farther extension of the same process whereby a specific form is realised in a new individual which must go through the same cycle of change. For, as Aristotle says, adopting the language of Plato, “it is the most natural of all functions for the living being to produce another like itself, the plant a plant, the animal an animal, in order that they may partake in the eternal, so far as is possible for them. This is what all beings seek for, and in view of this they do all that it is natural for them to do. We must, however, distinguish between the objective end which they all seek and the realisation of it which is possible to the particular subject. Now, since living beings cannot partake in the divine and the eternal by continuing their individual existence—it being impossible for a nature which is finite and perishable to maintain for ever its individuality and numerical identity—they partake in it as they can. In other words, they abide, not in themselves, but in what is like them; not as numerically one, but in the unity of one species.”2 What we have in the plant life is, therefore, not merely a continuation of the process of change, whereby the different inorganic elements are incessantly passing into each other; for these elements and their process are subordinated to a higher principle of unity, first in the individual, and then, when the individual fails, in the race. Thus by the continuous cyclical movement of individual and racial life the transitory existence of finite beings is turned, in Platonic language, into a moving image of eternity.

Again, just as the nutritive life is not a mere repetition of the process of the elements, nor even that with the addition of another process, but involves the subjection of these elements to a higher principle of unity, so the sensitive and appetitive life of animals is not an external addition to the nutritive and reproductive process, but absorbs and, so to speak, transubstantiates its results. In one sense it might be said that the animal goes through the same round of existence as the plant, and that the ends realised in it are still the same, the maintenance of the individual and of his kind. But this is only superficially true: for these very ends become changed in character when they are mediated by consciousness, by sensation and desire. It is true, indeed, that these ends do not exist in their generality for the animal itself, any more than for the plant, and therefore the animal cannot be said to will them. It is only of nature, as an unconscious principle, which realises itself in them through their particular sensations and appetites, that Aristotle speaks as willing the good of the individual and of his kind. But the animal is capable of perceiving the particular objects that secure or hinder its well-being, and of feeling desire or aversion in relation to them. For the sensitive soul stands in an ideal relation to its objects, and can receive their sensible forms without the matter. Moreover, these sensible forms are not impressed on its organs from without, but the object without only calls into action what is potentially present in the sensitive faculty. Hence sense cannot perceive anything but its special object, and even that only within the limits of its sensibility. From this point of view its perceptions are merely a development of its own nature, and it might fairly be said to perceive nothing but itself.3 We have further to observe that all sensations, in order that they may be compared and distinguished from each other, must be brought to a centre of sensibility in what we should call the feeling self.4 And the same must of course be true of the desiring self, though Aristotle does not call special attention to this.

In both these forms of life, as I have already observed, the idea of the organic correlation of body and soul conflicts with Aristotle's general conception of the relation of form to matter, which is determined by form, yet not altogether subjected to it: for matter is always regarded as having a relative independence. Thus the material constituents of the body have a process of their own which is never completely subordinated to the process of plant life, and which in the decay and death of the plant ceases to be subordinated to it at all. And, in like manner, the nutritive life has a process of its own which is not unconditionally subordinated to the process of animal existence, or completely absorbed in it. But the discordance between these two aspects of the relation of form and matter becomes still more definitely and distinctly revealed in Aristotle's conception of the life of man. The form of man's life is reason; and reason is not merely one form among others, it is the universal form, the form which embraces and prevails over all other forms. And reason has, as Aristotle puts it, no opposite, nothing from which it is distinguished or to which it is externally related; if it is determined, it is only as it determines itself. If, therefore, reason be taken as the form of the life of any being, it would seem that that life must not only be a stage higher in development than the life of animals; it must be qualitatively distinguished from it. For there can be no continuity between the relative and the absolute, between that which acts only as it is determined by something else and that which determines itself. In fact, it seems something like a paradox that such a principle should manifest itself in the form of any particular existence. Yet this paradox, after all, is not one that arises out of the peculiar doctrines of Aristotle. It is the essential paradox or problem of the life of man, as a being who is, in one point of view, only a particular existence like an animal or a plant, but who, nevertheless, has the principle of universality, the principle of self-consciousness and self-determination within him. It is, therefore, by no subtilty of ancient dialectic, but by the nature of the case, that Aristotle is forced to recognise two contrasted aspects of the nature of man, as at once particular and universal, or, we might even say, finite and infinite. How does he endeavour to solve this problem?

It must, I think, be confessed that Aristotle has no final solution for this difficulty, but rather that he evades it, as the Scholastics so often evaded their difficulties, by a distinction. In other words, he breaks the unity of man's life and divides it into two departments or spheres of existence, in either of which he may live and move. In both spheres, indeed, man manifests his rational nature; for reason is the form of his being, and it is impossible to live the, life of a man without, in some sense, living the life of reason. But there is an exercise of reason in which it is determined by itself, and deals only with purely intelligible objects; and there is another exercise of reason in which it deals with a material which is alien to itself—a material which it can control and subordinate to its own ends, but which it can never completely assimilate. Thus in relation to the immediate world of experience reason may be regarded as both immanent and transcendent. But it is only as transcendent that it can fully realise itself and come to a clear consciousness of its own nature; while, as immanent, it is obstructed by the nature of the subject-matter with which it has to deal, and drawn down into a lower form of activity in which it can never adequately manifest or satisfy itself. Speaking generally, these two spheres correspond to the theoretical and the practical use of reason; for, in its theoretical use, reason is concerned only to discover the universal principles which underlie all existence, and to follow them out to their logical consequences; its work, therefore, is purely scientific, and the results it reaches will be necessary and exact. In its practical use, on the other hand, it has to deal with the world of immediate experience, as well as with the nature of man, in all their complexity and particularity: it has to determine the ends which, as a rational being who is also an animal, he has to realise, and to consider the means of realising them in the world. In this sphere, therefore, its objects are practical rather than scientific; and if, by reflexion, it can attain to a kind of science, yet the results of such science must be only approximate and inexact—they can reach only generality and not universality. We have, then, a broad division between the two spheres of theory and practice; and, in accordance with this division, we have to distinguish between pure science., which has to do with intelligible reality, as such—with the ideal forms of things and their consequences—and that lower kind of science which seeks to throw light upon the particulars of experience that have to be dealt with in practice. In the sequel we may have to admit some modification of this contrast, and that, indeed, on both sides; for Aristotle's actual methods of theoretical and practical science do not strictly correspond to the sharp distinction which he draws between them; but it will conduce to clearness to begin by taking the division in its most rigid form. We have, therefore, first of all, to realise that Aristotle conceives the life of man as consisting in the exercise of reason, and as comprising two distinct forms of that exercise, θϵωρία and πρα̑ξις, the pure activity of contemplation, and the mixed and imperfect activity of the practical life. And we have further to realise that this division is not quite exclusive: for contemplation or science enters into practice, though only as a means to an end beyond itself.

This broad division of the contemplative from the practical life is one of the points in which Aristotle separates himself decisively from Plato, though only by giving further play to tendencies which are already visible in the Platonic writings. For Plato's philosophy, like that of his master Socrates, was, in the first instance, practical, and it was only by gradual and almost unwilling steps that he came to make theory an end in itself apart from practice. And, even when he did so, he was never content to make theory his sole end, but to the last sought to bring political idea, but rather by working out more fully the principles that seemed to underlie these models. Thus his socialism and communism were only the further development of that tendency to lose the man in the citizen which had already been carried so far in the actual life of Greece.

But the very attempt to universalise the principle of Greek politics inevitably led Plato to aim at something more than it was possible to realise in a Greek municipal society. The philosopher, he maintained, must rule; and the philosopher was one who looked beyond the unity of the State to the unity of the whole universe, and who could not, therefore, treat the former as an absolute end. The Idea of Good, the principle of all being and of all knowing, must be made the basis and the object of his life; and the State, with its bourgeoise ethics of use and wont and its mythological religion, could not be recognised by him as more than a subordinate sphere of reality. If, therefore, the philosopher has laid upon him the duty of governing and regulating the State, yet his true life is elsewhere. His function as ruler, indeed, is to make the civic community a copy of the ideal order of the intelligible world; but his main interest lies in the original and not in the copy. Ethics and politics have for him become secondary to philosophy or theology, and the practical has been subordinated to the contemplative life. And soon the question must arise whether the connexion of the two can be maintained, and whether the municipal State can be brought in relation to the type set up for it, or reconstituted upon the model of the intelligible world. The last word of the Republic on this subject shows that Plato found it hard to pour the new wine into the old bottles. “I conclude,” says Socrates, “that the man of understanding will direct all his energies throughout life to those studies which will impress upon the soul the characters of wisdom, temperance, and justice, and will neglect all others.”…“Then,” answers Glaucon, “if that be his motive, he will not care to interfere with politics” “By the dog of Egypt, you are wrong,” replies Socrates; “for he certainly will do so, at least in his own city, though perhaps not in the city in which he happens to be born” “I understand,” says Glaucon; “you mean that he will be an active politician in the city which we have now organised, the city which as yet exists merely in idea; for, I believe, it is not to be found anywhere on earth.” “Well,” answers Socrates again, “perhaps in heaven there is laid up a pattern for him who wishes to behold it, and, beholding, to organise his own life by its laws. But the question of its present or future existence upon earth is quite unimportant; for, in any case, the philosopher will live after the laws of that city only and not of any other.”5

What we gather from this remarkable utterance is that Plato found it impossible to raise the Greek State, which still remained for him the highest type of political association, to the level of his philosophical principles. In fact, he makes no attempt to connect the reconstruction of the State with the Idea of Good, and the only place in which he gives a practical turn to his highest ideas is in the remarkable picture of the philosopher which he draws at the beginning of the Republic. There he endeavours to show that one who views all particular things in the light of the whole, as the philosopher must do, will necessarily acquire an absolute generosity and freedom of spirit, which will raise him far above the level of the ordinary civic virtues;6 but Plato does not enquire how, in that case, his philosophy can throw any light upon the organisation of the State. Rather, as Plato seems to indicate, his contemplation of ideal reality must bring with it a depreciatory estimate of all political interests, and even of the finite life in general. “Do you think,” says Socrates, “that a spirit full of such lofty thoughts, and privileged to contemplate all time and existence, can possibly attach any great importance to this life of ours?”7 And, in another place, he anticipates Aristotle in drawing a broad line of division between the ethical virtues—which “are like qualities of the body, which, not being in us at first, are put into us by training and habit”8—and the wisdom of the philosophers, which is based on the pure faculty of intelligence and requires nothing for its development, except to be turned from sensible things to the contemplation of ideal reality. On this view, however, the relation of the philosopher to the State seems to drop away from him, or to become an external adjunct to his life, which can be easily disjoined from it altogether. He owes it as a duty to the city that has educated him that he should be willing to undertake its government, but his real vocation lies not in any practical endeavours, but in the contemplation of the ideal and the divine.

When the link between theory and practice had become so weak, it was easily broken by Aristotle, who summarily rejects the idea of connecting ethics and politics with the highest principle of philosophy. Accordingly, in the Ethics he sets aside the Platonic Idea of Good—ostensibly, indeed, on the ground that it is an abstraction which has no definite meaning, or which at least is too vague and general to supply any practical guide to human life. But Aristotle's quarrel was not merely with the ideal theory of Plato, but with his whole attempt to connect ethics with metaphysics, and to base the regulation of conduct upon the conception of the absolute Good. While, therefore, Plato, in the effort to reach the deepest and most comprehensive view of ethics, had been drawn onward from the consideration of the unity of the State to that of the unity of the whole system of the universe, Aristotle entirely repudiates this line of thought as carrying us beyond the limits of the matter in hand, and demands that ethics and politics should be treated as a separate science, and saved from the irrelevant intrusion of metaphysics. And his ultimate reason for this was not that he denied the existence of an absolute Good, which it is possible for us to know; for, as we shall see, his own metaphysical investigations were directed to the discovery of such a Good. It lay rather in his conviction that our relation to that Good cannot be practical but only theoretical; while the sphere of ethics, on the other hand, is not theory but practice. Theory, therefore, can be of use only so far as it is a means to practice; for “we study ethics not that we may know what virtue is, but that we may become good men; otherwise there could be no advantage in it whatsoever.”9 It is true, indeed, that ethics starts with the conception of man as a rational subject who seeks to organise his life with a view to the end which, relatively to him, is the highest; and no doubt also, what is highest relatively to man's nature is the exercise of his reason: but in the ethical sphere this does not mean the exercise of pure reason upon its appropriate objects. It means, looking at the matter in a subjective point of view, the exercise of reason in governing the passions and giving unity and order to the inner life of man as a complex being, who is a compound of ‘dust and deity’: for he who speaks of man, as Aristotle says, προστίθησιк αὶ θηρίον:10 that is, he must take into account the lower as well as the higher nature of man. And, looking at it in an objective point of view, it means the control of the conditions presented by the environment of the life of man. so as to gain opportunity for the exercise of his highest qualities. In both aspects, ethics has to guide man in dealing with the particular facts of his existence, and it has, therefore, to take account of external conditions and, therefore, of an element of contingency which cannot be brought within the sphere of pure reason.

And this also greatly affects the value of science in relation to morality; for, while reason can rise above the particular experiences of the moral and social life to the general conception of the end to be sought, and of the means whereby it may be attained, it is hampered in its processes both of induction and deduction by conditions which do not apply to pure science. In the first place, ethical experience is not the product of refiexion, but of the unconscious action of reason in the development of social life; and, we may add, it must have been already acquired by the individual himself, who seeks to interpret it, or even to understand its interpretation when it is presented by others. For, only one who by participation in the common life of the State has had his moral nature developed, is capable of rising to the knowledge of ethical principles or even of making anything of them when they are set before him by others. The value of scientific ethics is, therefore, that it brings into clear consciousness the ideas which underlie the unreasoned ethics of the ordinary good mail and good citizen; and he who would recognise the truth of ethical science or gain any profit from it, must already possess in himself the data on which it is based. It is true that for such an one ethical science may have great value; for the reflexion which discovers the universal principles involved in the special rules and customs of life will enable him to criticise and correct the very experience from which he starts. The statesman, above all—who has not merely to find his way amid the difficulties of private life, but to meet the larger demands of legislation and administration, and even, it may be, to make modifications in the constitution of the community which he governs—must know the grounds upon which the State in general, and his particular form of State, are based. He must have analysed the moral nature of man, and examined the particular excellences that need to be called forth, and the particular vices which need to be repressed, by a good education. But even in his case Aristotle insists on the necessity of that immediate sense or intuition of moral truth, which can only be developed by habit. Moral science, therefore, must not only be based upon the immediate judgments of the individual who is imbued with the ethical spirit of a civic society, but it depends for the proper application of its general principles upon the peculiar tact and power of handling ethical interests which is due to that spirit.

Now no one can fail to recognise that, in his account of the development of the moral consciousness through habit and in his rejection of the Socratic doctrine that ‘virtue is knowledge,’ Aristotle is expressing an important aspect of the truth—if at least we limit knowledge to the reflective form of science. It is easy to show that the science of ethics presupposes the existence of morality, and cannot be the cause of that existence. If all the spiritual possessions of man, and, in particular, the institutions and customs of the society of which he is a member, be produced by the activity of the reason that is within him, yet they are certainly not due to a reason that is conscious of what it is doing, or aware of its own processes. So far, therefore, even the profoundest believer in the rational nature of man would admit that the unconscious comes before the conscious, or, what is the same thing, that the particular application of moral principles is prior to their distinct recognition as general principles. To say otherwise would be like saying that no one could trace effects to causes without having recognised and defined the idea of causality.

But, in the second place, Aristotle means more than this. He means that in the determination of particular objects by the ordinary consciousness there is a synthesis of reason with an irrational element—with an element of real contingency of which we can only say that it exists, and that we cannot explain it by any rational principle. Hence, strictly speaking, we cannot know the particular; we can only grasp it in the immediate intuition of sense; or, to put it in a more directly Aristotelian way, our knowledge of objects becomes actual, and not merely potential, only when the consciousness of the universal is brought into relation with the perceptions of sense.11 There is, therefore, an element in our consciousness which cannot be universalised, or made intelligible, in the way of science. This fact, however, does not embarrass us in the sphere of pure science; for, in Aristotle's view of it, science has only to do with general principles and what can be deduced from them. In the practical life, however, it becomes highly important, for action has directly to do with the particular—with the particular act to be done and the particular end to be achieved. And this can be apprehended only in an immediate intuition, which might be called a moral sense, if that name did not do injustice to the rational element involved in it.12 This moral sense cannot be produced in us by teaching or by any purely intellectual process; it is due only to that combination of the rational with the irrational factor, which belongs to our nature as thinking beings who are also animals; and if it can be developed by training, and especially by the training of social life, yet the process of such training cannot be referred to reason alone. In other words, our appetites and passions have not reason immanent in them, and must have it superinduced upon them from without by exercise and habituation. They have in themselves no measure, they fluctuate between excess and defect, and only accidentally hit the golden mean. Hence, measure has to be imposed upon them by reason, and gradually to be wrought into their texture by discipline. It is as with the sculptor, who has to give form to a material which in itself is formless, or has only a form which is not relative to his purpose, and who, therefore, in shaping the parts of his statue, has so to guide his hand that each of them may be in just proportion to all the rest. In the creation of such a work of art, the exact measure of each part has to be preserved, and the slightest exaggeration or diminution of any limb or feature may make all the difference between beauty and ugliness. So also it is with the moral artist, who has to take the rough block of humanity, with the animal nature which is its basis, and so to restrain or to encourage, to weaken or to strengthen, the different passions and tendencies, as to fashion out of them a noble character. Nor does it alter the case that each man, to a certain extent at least, is the moral artist of himself. Here, too, the material is given independently of the reason either of the individual himself or of those who regulate the life of the society in which he is a member; and the manifold contingency to which that material is subjected, makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to attain a satisfactory result. All we can say is that goodness is shown in making the best of the circumstances.

We can now see what it is that makes Aristotle dwell so persistently upon the inexactness of the science of ethics. It is not merely that the subject is so complex that it is impossible to disentangle all the threads that are interwoven in it. Nor is it, as has been suggested, that Aristotle mistakes the difficulties of the practice of science for the difficulties of the science of practice; for, though the application of any science must involve many considerations which are omitted in pure theory, that does not interfere with the exactness of the science itself. The real reason is that, in Aristotle's way of conceiving it, the science of practice has little or no value apart from practice, because of the essential nature of its subject-matter. It is that the actions of men involve a realisation of reason in an element which is not purely rational. Hence, from the pure idea of man as a rational being, we cannot develop an adequate conception of the methods in which reason is to be realised in human life. We are obliged to take the actual types of morality as they present themselves in experience, and from them to extract such general ideas as may give some help to the citizen and the statesman in moulding their own character and the character of others. And even in this case the teachings of science will be unavailing, unless such citizen or statesman is already deeply imbued with the spirit of the State. Thus Ėρόνησις can never become σοĖία, practical wisdom can never be raised into the form of pure science. Accordingly, in his ethical and political philosophy, Aristotle clings very closely to the facts of Hellenic character and Hellenic institutions, and his ideal of the State is little more than a selection and combination of the features which present themselves in different Greek cities. It is an ideal Athens, with the mob of mechanics, and all that are incapable of the highest civic functions, shut out from authority; or it is an ideal Sparta with its admirable discipline directed to higher ends than war. But Aristotle never pretends, like Plato, directly to connect the ethical and political life with the highest exercise of the intelligence: indeed, he tells us explicitly that that life belongs to man as a σύνθϵτον—a complex or compound being with a mortal as well as an immortal part. Hence he speaks contemptuously of the notion of ascribing moral virtues to the gods, who, as purely spiritual beings, cannot descend into the region of practice. “That perfect happiness is,” he declares, “a purely contemplative activity, may be seen from this that we ascribe it most of all to the gods. But what kinds of moral action are we to attribute to them? Are we to say that they do just actions? As if it were not absurd to think of the gods as making bargains with each other and duly restoring what is entrusted to them, and the like. Or are we to say that they perform acts of bravery, enduring dangers and encountering risks because it is noble so to do? Or, again, have they to show liberality in their dealings? But to whom will they give anything, and what is the coin or currency that they use? Or are they to be thought of as temperate? Would it not be a quaint praise of the gods to say that they have no bad impulses to check? In truth, when we go through all the moral virtues, we see clearly that such practical activities are mean and unworthy of the gods.”13

Whether the same objections will not lie against all the theoretic activities by which the intelligence of a finite being advances to the discovery of the truth, and, indeed, against every exercise of the intellect short of the beatific vision, Aristotle does not here enquire. But the consequence for ethical science is obvious. The ethical teacher must not attempt to pass beyond the boundaries of ethical experience, or to connect his science with metaphysical principles. He must be content to bring to light the principles that underlie Greek ethical practice, and to use them to improve that practice. In this lies at once the value of ethical studies, if confined within their proper range, and their valuelessuess, if carried beyond it. Aristotle, therefore, frequently insists on the uselessness of ethical theories that are not based upon an actually realised ethical life, and do not throw new light upon it. Morals, in his view of it, is essentially a science that springs from practice and returns to practice; and for it to set up any other end than this, or to pretend to be science for science's sake, is to forfeit all its claims to the relative place which it holds in human knowledge. It is only pure θϵωρία, pure contemplation, that can pass beyond these limi tations, can leave behind it the uncertain and troubled region of the contingent, in which lie the interests and cares of man's transitory life, and can attain to that kind of reality which is independent of time and change.

Nor is there any possibility of connecting the relative truths of ethics with the absolute principles of pure metaphysic. There is, indeed, a kind of connexion between the practical and the theoretical life, in so far as the former is the precondition of the latter: but this is only an external and accidental connexion. The State is needed to protect and to educate man, to furnish the material basis for his existence and the sphere for the exercise of his moral energies. It is, so to speak, the ladder on which he has to climb up to the higher life. But with that which is highest of all, it has nothing directly to do. The contemplative life, and it alone, is self-sufficient and complete in itself; or it would be so for us men were it not that, as mortal and changeable beings, we cannot continuously maintain the pure activity of thought, and must therefore fall back on the ethical virtues, which “enable us to play our parts as men.”14 In showing the elevation of the contemplative life above all material and even moral interests, Aristotle's sober style for once gets a tinge of poetry. “Such a life,” he declares, “is greater than can be measured by a human standard, and man can live it not qua man, but only as there is something divine within him. And the active development of this something is as much superior to the exercise of the other virtues as reason in its purity is superior to the mixed or composite nature of humanity in general. If then reason is divine in comparison with the man's whole nature, the life according to reason must be divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to pay regard to those who exhort us that, as we are men, we ought to think human things and to keep our eyes upon mortality: rather, as far as may be, we should endeavour to rise to that which is immortal and do everything to live in conformity with what is best in us; for, if in bulk it is but small, yet in power and dignity it far exceeds everything else that we possess. Nay, it may even be regarded as constituting our very individuality, since it is the supreme element, and that which is best in us. And if so, then it would be absurd for us to choose any life but that which is properly our own. And this agrees with what was said before” (in relation to the definition of happiness) “that that which is characteristic of any nature is that which is best for it, and gives it most joy. Such, therefore, to man is the life according to reason, since it is this that makes him man.”15

In this passage we must not miss the verbal contradiction. The theoretic life is beyond the measure of humanity; it is the life of God rather than of man. Yet, from another point of view, it is the life wherein that which constitutes the very nature and individuality of man, his characteristic power or faculty, alone finds its appropriate exercise. The sharp division which Aristotle makes between the two lives which man can live, makes it difficult for him to say where the central principle of man's being is to be placed, and what, strictly speaking, constitutes the self or ego to which everything else in him is to be referred. His words remind us of a saying of Emerson that the consciousness of man is a sliding-scale, which at one time seems to identify him with the divine spirit, and at another with the very flesh of his body. The rift that runs through the philosophy of Plato seems here to have widened till it rends human nature asunder. The result is a division of the contemplative from the practical life, which has had momentous results in the history of philosophy and theology. It is the source of what has sometimes been called the ‘intellectualism’ of Greek philosophy, which passed from it into the Christian church in the form of the exaltation of the monastic life above any life that can be lived in the world. And Thomas Aquinas was only following out the principles of Aristotle when he exalted the contemplative above the moral virtues, and maintained that the latter related to the former dispositive sed non essentialiter16 This transition of thought was already made easy by the religious turn of expression which Aristotle and his followers often use. It is specially marked in the Eudemian Ethics, where we are told that the highest life is to worship and contemplate God, θϵραπϵύϵιν τòν θϵòν καὶ θϵωρϵι̑ν Professor Burnet translates this by the familiar words: “to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”: but we must remember that for Aristotle this enjoyment consists in a pure contemplative activity, in which thought rises above all discourse of reason into unity with its object, and rests in it as its final and complete satisfaction.

The farther development of this view and the discussion of the error and truth which are mingled in it, will be the subject of the next lecture.

  • 1. De Anima, 414b, 20 seq.
  • 2. De Anima, 414a, 26.
  • 3. De Anima, 417a 21.
  • 4. De An., 426b, 8.
  • 5. Rep., 592 A.
  • 6. Cf. Rep., 491 B, where these virtues are asserted to be a hindrance to philosophy.
  • 7. Rep., 486 A.
  • 8. Rep., 518 E.
  • 9. Eth., 1003b, 27.
  • 10. Pol., 1287a, 30.
  • 11. Met., 1036a, 5: cf. 1087a, 17.
  • 12. Eth., 1142a, 25.
  • 13. Eth., 1178b, 7 Seq.
  • 14. πρòς τò ἀνθρωπϵύϵσθαι. Eth., 1178b, 7.
  • 15. Eth., 1177b, 27.
  • 16. Summa, S.S. 9. 180, 2