VIRTUE AND REASON IN PLATO AND ARISTOTLE

By A.W. Price

OUP (2015) p/b 356pp £22.50 ISBN 9780198709350

This is a book which focuses almost entirely on Plato and Aristotle, and covers a wide range of material from the two philosophers, seeking to point the similarities and the differences, as well as including appraisals of a number of modern commentators. P. offers a balanced and non-partisan account. He adduces an impressive array of textual material, offering clear analyses. His discussion is well structured, so that by the end the reader has a clear picture of this complex and multilayered subject.

The book is divided into four sections, in each of which Plato’s thoughts are presented first, followed by those of Aristotle. The sections deal with (A) eudaimonia (happiness); (B) virtue; (C) phronêsis (practical reasoning); and (D) acrasia (weakness). There is a full bibliography, an index locorum, an index nominum and a general subject index.

Section A demonstrates the teleological approach of both philosophers to happiness; the ultimate goal of human life is happiness, which is equated to ‘doing well’; P. summarises as ‘a mode of living that is achieved in, rather than through, acting well’. (The ambiguity of the Greek phrase eu prattein (do/fare well) is discussed elsewhere.) This goal is desirable in itself, and all else is subsumed under it, each item such as health or virtue playing their part in the achievement of happiness.

But the two philosophers differ in their metaphysics of action, Plato seeking values located outside action, Aristotle within action. P. teases out the distinctions, showing how Aristotle developed rather than opposed Plato. P. gives a lucid account of what ‘doing well’ means for Plato; he ranges over a variety of texts, e.g. Gorgias, Symposium and Euthydemus, with discussions of the conditional nature of ‘goods’ such as wealth, of degrees of happiness, the place of wisdom, good fortune, and pleasure.

There follows an analysis of Aristotle’s concept (or rather concepts) of happiness. Again P. adduces a wide range of texts, especial Eudemian Ethics and Nichomachean Ethics, as well as discussion of a number of modern commentators. There are accounts of holistic as opposed to atomistic views of happiness, choice, deliberation, desire, the ambiguity of the term eu prattein, pleasure, and the complete life.

Part B deals with virtue and the virtues which, both as guiding and executive qualities, enable the individual to put resources to good effect in achieving happiness. P. starts with an account of Plato’s views, with an informed discussion of the unity of virtue, with three options offered: (a) virtue as simple and unitary, (b) each virtue as relative to its field, and (c) the reciprocality of virtues. This leads to a general discussion of emotions and desires, with a detailed analysis of them as portrayed in Republic.

For Aristotle P. shows how virtue lies at the interface between (affective) perceptions, which are common to non-rational and rational animals, and judgments made on those perceptions, which belong only to rational animals. This leads to a discussion of (a) the virtues and the mean, and (b) the unity of the virtues; an individual needs to calculate just where the mean lies in any one situation; to possess virtue entails possession of all virtues (a point contested by Peter Geach). For Aristotle, habituation is important in the formation of a virtuous person and therefore for the acquisition of happiness.

Part C concerns practical reasoning, typically that employing inference from the end desired to the means of achieving it. In the absence of universal guiding principles that can be applied to all situations, there is a need for judgement that takes into account all the circumstances, so that each individual situation can be evaluated—which is the thrust of the Socratic dialogues such as Lysis and Euthyphro. Plato’s curriculum proposed for the philosopher-kings in Republic presents some difficulty, in that it might seem that only the philosopher-king(s) can acquire happiness. P. offers a good analysis of Plato’s discussion of the measurement of pleasures and pains in Protagoras before returning to the education in dialectic outlined in Republic VII, and finally to the evaluation of pleasure in Philebus. Aristotle focuses more closely on practical wisdom (phronêsis) as opposed to Plato’s broader concept of wisdom (sophia) and his own contemplative wisdom (theôria). P. takes issue with Broadie and McDowell.

Part D deals with acrasia (weakness of judgement and/or weakness of perseverance), the factor which is most likely to inhibit the combination of virtue and reason which is the surest route for both Plato and Aristotle to human happiness. P. discusses at some length Plato’s views put forward in Protagoras and Republic, pointing to the change apparent in Plato’s thought between the two dialogues. For Aristotle, P. gives a clear analysis of the main text, Nichomachean Ethics VII.1 (his numbering of passages from Nichomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics can be a little confusing, since he chooses to designate overlapping passages as AE) and then goes on to defend his own rationalist account against difficulties raised by, inter alios, David Charles.

All-in-all this is masterly work that embraces and assimilates an impressive amount of material in a clearly argued sequence, straightforward where the issues are less controversial, even-handed where their interpretation is ambiguous. It adds much to previous work on the subject, and is to be recommended for advanced students of Greek philosophy and of the moral philosophy in general.

Barrie Fleet—Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Advertisements

One thought on “VIRTUE AND REASON IN PLATO AND ARISTOTLE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s