Nature in the Nicomachean Ethics

Regarding the question of nature, or rather the “not-natural” we recall Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘natural’ in King Lear. In the play, political nature has been upset and Shakespeare freely uses the word “nature.” If we accept Aristotle’s famous pronouncement that “man is a political animal” in his Politics then indeed human nature has been upturned in King Lear. In the play, King Lear has wrongly abdicated his political power, dividing his “substance” between his three daughters. However, at the same time he wishes to maintain all of the glory and honor of kingship without the ownership and responsibility of being a king. Needless to say Goneril and Regan make a mockery of their father. The play descends into madness as the characters retreat further and further into the natural world (that is to say, the world untouched by the machinations of mankind): the wild and untamed nature becomes God for bastard children, kings become blind beggars, fools become philosophers, the undeserving become powerful, and the deserving become castaways. The political harmony, more in accord with nature, has been cataclysmically upset.

Similarly, in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we find a consideration of political harmony, or rather the Aristotelian mean. To invoke an image from Plato’s Laws, the mean is like a string puppet being pulled with equal force in two directions, yet staying constant in the center. It is a balance between the extremes. In this balance, we find happiness, the chief target we are aiming at, as outlined in Book I, 1102a 1-10. However, happiness is a state of being in the soul (a combination of the rational willing and the irrational habituation) in accord with virtue, and virtue “comes to be present not by nature nor contrary to nature, but in us who are of such a nature to take them on, and to brought to completion in them by means of habit” (Book II, 1102a 20-30). Habit and willing can only push one so far; a stone can by nature fall downward, but it cannot be habituated to fall upward. The latter would be not natural.

Therefore, we find three occurrences of the “not natural” in Aristotle’s Ethics. A natural predisposition (a state of being not controlled by man or his will), an excess, and a deficiency. The latter two destroy virtues. As an analog, recall the base nature of Dmitri in the Brothers Karamazov.

However, this discussion poses another problem for us: it implies that virtue, or the “aptness to hit the mean” (Book II, 1106b, 15) is likely not natural. If so, can we also claim that the golden mean is not natural, as well? In inquiring we must remember that Aristotle clearly states that the purpose of this discussion is for contemplative purposes, not to edify in knowing what virtue is, as a Socratic dialogue would try to do, but rather to make us better, or habituate us politically. To use a Nietzschean phrase, perhaps the Ethics for Aristotle is a book for All and for None. At any rate, Aristotle frequently locates his terms, whether they be virtues or just merely goods, in a situation of action, or a “being at work”.

Perhaps the “not natural,” when it comes to the consideration of the good, is a lack of action, or a being at rest. Happiness, after all, is mentioned as a kind of active state in the soul, in accord with virtue and the ultimate objective of pursuing the good, which is an aptness to hit a mean influenced by one’s nature and habituation. The remainder of the text, following Books I-II is an attempt by Aristotle to lay out the particulars of this idea: particular virtues, both political and not, and also justice. These are identified not in terms of definitions, but rather in contradistinction to their excesses and deficiencies.

One might call the Nicomachean Ethics, writ large, a text of habituation. It is an attempt to persuade the reader that pursuing the mean in all things – “all things in moderation”, as the Pythia would say- is the right path to happiness and goodness. It is perhaps not an honest text, or at least not as dangerous as the Platonic dialogues that unearth the lack of knowledge present in the most well-born men in the polis. The Nicomachean Ethics, in its vague declarations that are never quite affirmative, leaves the door open for the close reader to assume that Aristotle is not being entirely genuine. Perhaps he has a particular audience in mind with the text, young men like Nicomachus. However, he approaches the topic differently than Plato by scrawling a treatise rather than literature as a poet. By using phrases like “it seems that happiness…” and “to many virtue is…” Aristotle avoids being put on trial for making wild declarations that commit him to any Socratic fallacies.

If the claims I have made are true, then it poses a problem for the question of the not natural, for Aristotle writes the text directed at those who can be habituated and also for those who can will themselves into goodness. Perhaps this esoteric reading of the text implies that Aristotle thinks goodness and the mean is highly unnatural, and must instead be forced or habituated on the young through lawgivers and treatises to make them good, and also to guide them toward willing to be good. Therefore a kind of imperial enforcement, a hierarchy, is the most natural way of things, especially if man is by nature a political animal and if we are to accept that it is not in the character of goodness to abdicate power into the hands of the undeserving, a la King Lear.

For this reading I used the magnificent Joe Sachs translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

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