Aristotle’s Introduction to Function, Reason, and Virtue
In the first two books of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that the function of humans is to practice rational activity, which completed over a lifetime makes a good life. Aristotle first explores the function and ends of all actions and things, defines the function of humans as rational activity, more closely defines the human capacity for reason in relation to the human soul, and then begins to connect rational activity to the all-important practice of virtues. In this essay, I will explore these topics more fully while looking for alternative conclusions and weaknesses in Aristotle’s train of reasoning, which starts with the claim that all things have ends and a function, and culminates in an ethics grounded in virtues. For the sake of brevity, I will not address Aristotle’s argument about ends as a means to the highest end of happiness.
Actions have ends (1094a1-5 and 1097a1)
Aristotle claims that all actions have ends, the completion of which being the function of said action. He gives examples: “health is the end of medicine, a boat of boat building, victory of generalship, and wealth of household management” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a.3). The ends of each action is considered the good of that action (1097a1), and so it logically follows that the function of said activity is to achieve this good. For example, Tom knits scarves. Tom must think that the creation of scarves is a good thing, maybe because he enjoys having a variety of scarves in his wardrobe. The function of his knitting is to create the scarves, which are the end of his activity. Thus, the good of Tom knitting is the creation of scarves. Aristotle complicates his assertion with two technicalities:
“Wherever there are ends apart from the actions, the products are by nature better than the activities,” (1094a.2). Ends can take on two forms: intangible activities or tangible products (1094a2). Aristotle ranks the products as innately better – which I take to mean more important – than the activities. In Tom’s case, the scarves themselves are better than the knitting skills which he acquires in the process of making the scarves. This seems plausible, as the supposed goal of learning to knit scarves is to have the scarves themselves. However, what if an end of Tom’s knitting is to relax by doing a repetitive activity? He still uses the scarves and considers having this product just as gratifying as being able to relax while knitting. In this situation, it may follow by Aristotle’s reasoning that the scarf itself is still innately better than Tom’s relaxation. This seems odd.
Taking Aristotle’s statement to an extreme, Tom’s scarves would be innately better than relaxation even if he never used a scarf and discarded all the scarves he made. A counterargument is that once Tom does not care for the scarves, his original activity is no longer to knit scarves. His activity would be knitting in order to relax, with the end being said relaxation. Either interpretation shows the complexity and ambiguity already latent in Aristotle’s logic, which weaken the overall groundwork for Aristotle’s argument. Confusion about the importance of tangible versus intangible ends here may lead to more confusion once Aristotle addresses the function of humans.
Further complication arrives with the possibility of multiple ends: “And so, if there is some end of everything achievable in action, the good achievable in action will be this end; if there are more ends than one, [the good achievable in action] will be these ends,” (1097a1). With the assertion that some ends are better than others, and the possibility of multiple ends, one may experience the natural urge to rank the importance of each end. There may be many beneficial ends to Tom’s knitting: scarves, relaxation, the development of a practical skill, increased hand dexterity, gratitude or money from those who receive the scarves, respect from people impressed by Tom’s knitting skills, and so the list of ends may go on. It seems simplistic and unreasonable to conclude that the scarf itself outweighs the value of all these other ends. However, it may be necessary to choose a highest end considering Aristotle’s language when speaking of function. Aristotle considers many ends for an action, but only one function. Thus, as a knitter, Tom may receive many tangible and intangible ends from knitting, but the ultimate function of being a knitter is to knit well by making excellent scarves. The transition from plural ends to singular functions is puzzling. This becomes significant when Aristotle assumes that humans have a single function: rational activity. All actions and ends that comprise a well going life must in some way relate to this singular function. One may counter my critique by saying that all ends eventually are means to the single end of happiness, an argument I do not fully address in this essay.
All things have a function: professions and body parts (1097a9-11)
In Section 7 of Book I, Aristotle transitions from ends to functions, specifically the function of professions and human body parts. In this paper, I will accept the assertion that happiness is the ultimate end of human life. To better understand what happiness entails, Aristotle prescribes that “we first grasp the function of a human being,” (1097a10). Function determines actions and, consequentially, ends. Tom’s function as a knitter is to knit well. His characteristic action is to knit and his end is a well-crafted scarf. Surprisingly, Aristotle is in a way working backwards by first defining the human end as happiness and then trying to find the human
function as a way of discerning what human activity should be. First, he firmly established that actions have functions.
Aristotle often speaks of actions and professions synonymously, as many of the actions he cites – flautist, sculptor, craftsman, boat building, generalship – are also trades (1094a3, 1097b9). It follows that all professions have a function. “Then do the carpenter and the leather worker have their functions and actions, but has a human being no function? Is he by nature idle, without any function?” (1097b10). Here is Aristotle’s first leap in logic. He equates professions and actions to being human, but these are by no means the same thing. Expecting humans to have an innate function because other crafts, actions, and decisions appear to have functions is a reasonable line of thought, but not a steadfast logical proof. It may be that humans are “by nature idle,” (1097b10). Without an external influence – be it orders to do a job, necessities for survival, societal or religious expectations – humans may be purposeless. True, this idea seems unlikely, but Aristotle does not address the possibility at any length. This is a problem characteristic of empirical theories, where observations lead to highly probable conclusions, but lack the unquestioning authority which follows from a purely logical proof.
He goes on to examine the function of body parts: “Or, just as eye, hand, foot, and, in general, every [bodily] part apparently has its function, may we likewise ascribe to a human being some function apart from all of these?” (1097b11). Organs do have functions: eyes grant sight, hands grant dexterity, feet grant mobility. Once again, equating body parts to the whole of a human being seems to be a stretch of logic. It is like saying, “Big toes function to keep us balanced, thus humans function to. . .” This stands at odds with the next step in Aristotle’s argument, in which he attributes humans with the special ability to reason. Within paragraphs, humans are equated to feet and designated as the only species capable of reason, effectively setting humans above all other living species.
The function of human activity is rational activity (1098a12-14)
The next stage in Aristotle’s reasoning is to prove that “the special function of a human being” is “activity and actions of the soul that involve reason (1097b12, 1098a14). For purposes of modern interpretation, the “soul” is like the “mind”. Let us trace his reasoning: Aristotle first assumes that the function of humans is unique to them. He can then use process of elimination to discover which character trait is a function: humans share “a life of nutrition and growth” with all living things and a “life of sense perception” with all animals, so these are ineligible (1098a12). The only trait Aristotle sees as being unique to humans is a capacity for reason or rationality (1098a13). However, just having the capacity to reason does not make for a good life, one must actively practice reason over the course of a lifetime. Done well, this will lead to happiness and a fulfilled life.
There are several objections one might have with this conclusion, one being that a capacity for reason, or rationality, is not unique to humans. In modern times, many people believe that non-human animals have the ability to reason and possibly feel emotions as humans do. Suppose that Tom the knitter has a dog, Frodo. Frodo displays many actions that seem to show a capacity for reason: Frodo seems especially attached to certain people, including Tom. Frodo also has preferences when it comes to food and toys. When faced with an obstacle course or difficult new trick to learn, Frodo does well in solving the puzzle. There is clearly a system of communication which Frodo uses with other dogs as well as Tom. It is unclear whether Frodo has the same capacity for self-reflection, morality, and foresight that Tom does – traits which may be vital to Aristotle’s conception of rationality. The conception of animal intelligence in the B.C. era was far different from that of today. By a modern perspective, even rationality may be disqualified as the “special function” of humans in Aristotle’s process of elimination.
There are several other aspects of human life that could be considered unique to human beings: sophisticated speech patterns for communication, physical differences from other animals, increased capacity for empathy with other humans, higher connection to a god than other animals, very complex civilizations, unrivaled cultural diversity within the species, and so on. Aristotle does not consider these options in Nicomachean Ethics. Even if he did see one of these characteristics as unique to humans in addition to rationality, the assumption that beings have a single function would only leave room for the latter characteristic.
Aristotle’s prescription for rational activity done well over a lifetime is at once restricting and frustratingly ambiguous. Directly after discussing rationality, Aristotle reminds the reader that, “This then, is a sketch of the good; for presumably, we must draw the outline first, and fill it in later,” (1098a17). While restricted to the first two books of Nicomachean Ethics, to this “sketch of the good,” it is difficult to precisely define Aristotle’s conception of rationality. In a strict sense, a life and “soul in accord with reason or requiring reason” may require a life devoted to contemplation, such as that of a philosopher (1098a14). In this case, Tom may not be living a good life by spending all his time knitting in an absent-minded manner. Tom could be a kind person with scarves that benefit others, but he is not necessarily engaged in rational activity. In a looser interpretation, Tom may be living a good, rational life by acting practically and recognizing that being a knitter is the most beneficial lifestyle he can fulfill. Tom may also lead a rational life by living virtuously, as I will explain later in this essay. In the next section, Aristotle’s notion of reason becomes clearer as he relates reason to the soul, the next stage in his argument which I will address.
The human soul has multiple parts (1102a9-1103a19)
The soul, which can be taken as the mind in modern terms, is split into rational and nonrational parts. The nonrational part of the soul is divided into two parts: half controls nutrition and growth, which is present in all living things, and half represents what Aristotle calls “appetite and desires” (1102a11, 1102b18). Desire is a part of the soul sometimes “clashing and struggling with reason,” (1102b15). The mark of a person who excels in the human function – who may be called an excellent, virtuous person – has a soul in which desires are in sync with the rational half of the soul (1102b16). Desires that do not “listen to reason” cause people to act irrationally, or poorly (1102b18). Desires may be in sync with the rational soul to different degrees; the more in sync that they are, the more virtuous the person. Aristotle briefly states that the rational half of the soul is also divided into a sect that has reason innately and sect that listens to reasons as the desirous soul does (1103a19).
Let us explore Tom the knitter’s soul as a means for clarification. The nutritive sect of Tom’s soul keeps him alive and functioning on the most basic level, as a living being. Recently, there has been a problem within Tom’s knitting guild: a dispute broke about between the knitters and the guild is considering splitting into smaller organizations. The desirous, nonrational sect of Tom’s soul is pushing him to split the guild. Tom’s desire is fueled by anger with the other knitters, pride, and a tendency to act radically in situations such as these. One of the older guild members advises Tom to resist the split, as it will ultimately harm all members of the guild, including Tom. The rational part of Tom’s mind that listens to reason recognizes that the older guild member is correct. In fact, the innately rational part of Tom’s mind had already been assured that encouraging the split was a poor decision. Being a mostly virtuous person, Tom acts rationally and decides to help maintain unity within the knitting guild. All of sects of Tom’s soul must be in sync for him to not only think of the rational thing to do, but then actually carry out the rational action. If Tom was a particularly rational, virtuous person he would feel no hesitation in maintaining the guild, as his desires would naturally fall in line with rational soul.
Rationality is connected to the virtues and to a good life (1098a15, 1102a1-1103b8, 1106a3-1108b16)
I have already been using the language of “virtue”, which is the last step Aristotle takes in linking the function of humans to a well going life. “Now each function is completed well by being completed in accord with the virtue proper [to that kind of thing]. And so the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue” or multiple virtues (1098a15). Aristotle presents six virtues in his discussion of the soul. Virtues of thought, which include “wisdom, comprehension, and prudence,” come from the rational soul (1103a19). Virtues of character, which include “generosity and temperance,” come from the nonrational soul (1103a19). In uniting the knitting guild, Tom displayed the virtue of wisdom by knowing what to do. He also had the generosity to forgive his fellow knitters and the temperance needed to control his anger. It is surprisingly that some virtues important to a good life fall under the nonrational soul. Aristotle does not say that these virtues are any less important, even though they do not directly stem from the human function of rational activity. It may be that these virtues can only manifest is the desirous half of the soul works in sync with the rational half.
To embody the virtues is to practice rational activity well or in an excellent manner. So, as long as the virtues are well defined, one has a clear picture of what a rational life entails. Unfortunately, there appears to be a multitude of virtues which all require a delicate balance between excess and deficiency (1106b10). For example: the virtue of bravery is a balance between rash confidence and cowardice (1107b2). Thus, my final critique of Aristotle’s argument for human function is that, in the end, readers of Nicomachean Ethics are not presented with a clear guide for a good life, which was Aristotle’s original reason for determining the function of human beings (1097b9-10). A roadmap the good life begins to form; it involves rational control over desires and embodying virtues by practicing any number of character traits with moderation. As Aristotle states – though he does not consider this a shortcoming as I do – he is presenting “sketch of the good,” (1098a17).
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents a sophisticated view of the human function as rational activity, which done excellently over a lifetime makes for a good, happy life. Aristotle first explores the idea that all actions have ends, which becomes very complex considering that a single action can have many ends and that higher value is placed on the products of actions. Aristotle then links ends to the single function that each profession and human body part has; from this information he makes the reasonable assumption that humans have a unique function as well. Through a very curt process of elimination, Aristotle concludes that human function is rational activity, which from a modern perspective may not be considered unique to the human species. Some of the ambiguity about what a rational life entails is partly remedied when Aristotle discusses the rational and nonrational parts of the soul. Lastly, Aristotle connects rationality to virtues. Surprisingly, virtues of character than are controlled by the nonrational part of the soul are essential for living an excellent life. The explanation and evaluation of Aristotle’s argument for the function of humans is based on thefirst two books of Nicomachean Ethics, and I am confident that many of the critiques presented in this essay are addressed within later sections of Aristotle’s work.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Ed. Terence Irwin. Second ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1999. Print.
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