Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Aristotle NE 1174b31–3

In Nicomachean Ethics 10.4 Aristotle uses a somewhat cryptic analogy as a way of illustrating what he takes to be the proper relationship between activity and pleasure. He is trying to make clear what he takes to be the correct way to understand how pleasure ‘supervenes’ on an activity, and to do so he uses a simile taken from the common rhetoric of praise for beautiful male youths. He writes at 1174b31–3:

τελειοῖ δὲ τὴν ἐνέργειαν ἡ ἡδονὴ οὐχ ὡς ἡ ἕξις ἐνυπάρχουσα, ἀλλ' ὡς ἐπιγινόμενόν τι τέλος, οἷον τοῖς ἀκμαίοις ἡ ὥρα.

Christopher Rowe translates as follows:

Pleasure completes the activity, not in the way the disposition present in the subject completes it, but as a sort of supervenient end, like the bloom of manhood on those in their prime.

Certainly, this has proved to be somewhat puzzling to commentators, and not only because of the difficulty of understanding the claim in the first part of the sentence about the contrast between the ‘disposition present in the subject’ and the proper way in which pleasure completes an activity. What is the force of the simile at the end?

My current hunch is that Aristotle is in all likelihood using this particular analogy because it answers a Platonic ancestor and, in turn, further explains the difference in opinion between Plato and Aristotle on the correct understanding of the nature of pleasure. The Platonic ancestor is an equally cryptic comment at Philebus 53d3–e1:

ΣΩ. Ἐστὸν δή τινε δύο, τὸ μὲν αὐτὸ καθ’ αὑτό, τὸ δ’ ἀεὶ ἐφιέμενον ἄλλου.

ΠΡΩ. Πῶς τούτω καὶ τίνε λέγεις;

ΣΩ. Τὸ μὲν σεμνότατον ἀεὶ πεφυκός, τὸ δ’ ἐλλιπὲς ἐκείνου.

ΠΡΩ. Λέγ’ ἔτι σαφέστερον.

ΣΩ. Παιδικά που καλὰ καὶ ἀγαθὰ τεθεωρήκαμεν ἅμα καὶ ἐραστὰς ἀνδρείους αὐτῶν.

ΠΡΩ. Σφόδρα γε.

ΣΩ Τούτοις τοίνυν ἐοικότα δυοῖν οὖσι δύο ἄλλα ζήτει κατὰ πάνθ’ ὅσα λέγομεν εἶναι.

Soc. Let there be this pair: what is itself, by itself, and what is always aiming at something else.

Prot. What are these two you are talking about and what are they like?

Soc. The one is always by nature the most holy and the other lacks it.

Prot. Be clearer still, please.

Soc. I suppose we have seen beautiful and good young boys together with their brave lovers.

Prot. Certainly.

Soc. So now look for another pair of things that are like these two in all the ways we are mentioning.

There is, I think, at least a prima facie case for thinking that Aristotle’s comment in NE 10.4 is in some way related to Socrates’ comment here in the Philebus. Not only do both texts reach for a comparison rooted in the language of male-male courtship during their explanation of the nature of pleasure, but those two explanations are themselves in any case engaging in a clear dialogue with one another. On the one side, Socrates’ kompsoi are offering a metaphysical classification of pleasure with ranks all pleasure along with processes of coming-to-be while, on the other side, Aristotle is concerned in NE 10.4 to reject the classification of all pleasures as processes (kinēseis) and instead wants to suggest that there is a class of pleasures instead associated with activities (energeiai) which are ends-in-themselves. As he says at 1174b9–10: ‘From these considerations it is clear also that they do not correctly describe pleasure as a change (kinēsis) or a coming-to-be (genesis)’. The people he refers to here as having this mistaken view may not be exclusively the kompsoi of the Philebus, but they are surely included in the group and will in all likelihood be the most prominent and explicit proponents of this thesis.

The contexts of the two remarks are therefore such that we should expect there to be a degree of intertextual significance to Aristotle’s choice of simile. The metaphysical classification of pleasures expounded by the kompsoi and elucidated by this analogy is precisely what Aristotle is arguing against in the passage in which he turns to a simile from a context of male-male sexual relationships. In order to consider in more detail what that significance is we should first try to make sense of what the precise import is of this analogy in the Philebus. Once that is done, it should be easier to see in what ways Aristotle’s counter-analogy is supposed to work in response. That’s my next job.

1 comment:

Ioannis said...

Could you please explain how you understand the expression ''ws epiginomenon ti telos''(1174b31-3)? For I think that this particular conception of 'telos' is the key to understand why pleasure completes the activity.
P.S.: what is the 'kompsoi'? I try to find it in the passage from Philebus but somehow It's impossible ...

Ioannis Papachristou