Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Jon Miller (ed.), The Reception of Aristotle's Ethics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 319. ISBN 9780521513883. $99.00.

Reviewed by Dhananjay Jagannathan, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Bernard Williams used to distinguish between two kinds of historical inquiry into philosophical texts.1 The first is the "history of ideas", which primarily looks sideways to the context of philosophical authors and is history before it is philosophy. The second is the "history of philosophy", which has some view to problems of present interest and is philosophy before it is history. Williams acknowledged that both inquiries are invaluable to the study of philosophical texts from the past, but he also intriguingly proposed that the products of these inquires and the sensibilities involved in conducting them might be so incompatible that it might well be a mistake to practice them together in considering a single philosopher or text.

As Jon Miller explains in his brief introduction, the thirteen authors he has marshaled to investigate the influence of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics on nearly every subsequent period of Western philosophy are each engaged in precisely this dangerous concoction, though the recipe varies. Miller refers to the historical task as Rezeptionsgeschichte, inaugurating a concept in philosophical studies familiar to students of classical literature. This mainly takes the form of illuminating details about the familiarity of later authors with the text of Aristotle as we know it and the many ways in which Aristotle's ideas were taught and transmitted. Where these contingencies bear on the philosophical thought of Aristotle's readers and inheritors, we are already engaged in Williams's "history of philosophy". It is noteworthy, however, that the strongest contributions to this volume identify a set of issues in Aristotelian ethical thought and consider what was made of them by those under scrutiny, a method not unfamiliar to historians of philosophy.

Those interested in ancient philosophy after Aristotle fare especially well. The complementary essays of Karen Margrethe Nielsen on Hellenistic philosophy and Christopher Gill on Roman philosophy provide a great deal of food for thought. Nielsen's essay serves as a methodological standard for the rest of the volume and deserves special attention here. The evidence for the period she treats is so thin and often fragmentary that an absence of direct quotation cannot be taken to represent a lack of influence and even familiarity. Nor, Nielsen argues convincingly, can we rely on tracing the inheritance of philosophical vocabulary in the Hellenistic schools from Aristotle, especially since Platonic antecedents can often be found. Philosophical influence must instead be detected by paying attention to philosophers' arguments and trying to reconstruct dialectical engagement. The Stoics make this difficult through their apparent lack of interest in citing earlier thinkers, but through exploring various issues, particularly the contribution of non-moral goods to happiness in Aristotle and the different species of value labeled by the Stoics, Nielsen shows how to carry out such a reconstruction in practice. Christopher Gill's essay is more historical in nature and shows how Aristotle's ethical thought was filtered through Stoicism in the Roman period, paying special attention to the emotions, moral development and, again, happiness. Here the treat is in the careful analysis of contemporary Aristotelian sources as they are presented in the sourcebook compiled by the late Robert Sharples. 2

Rounding out late antiquity are essays by Dominic O'Meara on Plotinus and Michael Tkacz on Augustine. Despite their claims to the contrary, neither succeeds entirely in showing that Aristotle's thought, and not simply the general tradition of ancient eudaimonism, made much of a mark on their subjects. In particular, the common ingredient in both seems instead to be the Middle Platonist synthesis of Plato's system with Aristotelian elements, tempered by a dash of Stoicism. O'Meara's essay is nevertheless engaging and highlights several striking features of Plotinian ethics. I learned less from Tkacz's unconvincing attempts to link Augustine to Aristotle via Cicero's (lost) Hortensius, especially since Aristotle's own Protrepticus, on which Cicero's dialogue is based, seems to be a product of the intellectual milieu of the Academy and not Aristotle's own mature thought.

Still there is at least the attempt to consider philosophical views comparatively and critically, a feature missing from Anna Akasoy's unfocused presentation of the translation and interpretation of Aristotle in Arabic and Islamic thought. While this is an area that clearly deserves more scholarly attention, the historical details are unenlightening absent a clearly demarcated object of inquiry. By contrast, another outstanding contribution is Kenneth Seeskin's treatment of Maimonides. The essay's focus on Maimonides's struggles to reconcile the doctrine of the mean with rabbinic prohibitions highlights the range of possible responses to Aristotle's moderate intellectualism about virtue. Seeskin's Maimonides draws on the divine life of contemplation described in Nicomachean Ethics X to ground a more thoroughgoing intellectualism than Aristotle's, one which incorporates a kind of Neoplatonic asceticism.

Anthony Celano begins his insightful treatment of the medieval commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of the vexed and ancient problem of reconciling the accounts of happiness in its first and last books. Celano lays stress on the centrality of phronesis as the master practical virtue to any happy life, even the happiest life of contemplation. This schematic resolution of the problem sets the backdrop for a survey of the various paths taken by early commentators of the period, such as Robert Kilwardby and Philip the Chancellor, to understanding the relation of virtue to happiness, oftentimes in ignorance of the later books of the Ethics, where phronesis takes center stage. Celano concludes with illuminating discussions of the commentaries of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, who had the benefit of the complete text. For these thinkers, the faculty of moral intuition called synderesis takes over at least some of the work of Aristotle's phronesis. This move brings out how present-day interpreters of Aristotle remain in need of a better understanding of how phronesis relates to a grasp of moral principles.

The late Middle Ages are explored via two contrasting methods in Jack Zupko's focused analysis of John Buridan's commentary on the Ethics and its curious dependence on Seneca, and David Lines's grand tour of the many genres in which Aristotle's ethics was taken up in the Renaissance. Zupko makes clear that Seneca's presence in Buridan is in some ways not a surprise, given his status as the preeminent stylist and moralizer of pagan antiquity, but he also does well to explore how Buridan uses quotations from Seneca not just as a nice bit of rhetorical flourish, but as a resource for understanding virtue in the Aristotelian sense. Seneca's Stoicism is taken to focus on the perfection of intellect, which is part, though only part, of the full (Aristotelian) story about us. Lines's enjoyable survey gains considerable value from the substantive purpose to which it is put: showing how broad Aristotle's influence was in both specialized academic contexts and more informal ones, and likewise how variations in genre reflect the particular concerns of his readers.

In a very fine essay covering early modern philosophy, Donald Rutherford takes on the dogma that writers from Descartes and Hobbes down to Leibniz and Spinoza turned dramatically away from Aristotelianism. Rutherford corrects this largely self-generated image of modern philosophy in two respects, one minor and one major: first, by pointing out that a rejection of medieval scholasticism need not be a wholesale rejection of Aristotle himself; second, and more importantly, by showing that the case of natural philosophy and metaphysics differs crucially from that of ethics. The substance of Rutherford's study concerns Hobbes and Spinoza and how a conception of practical reason that owes much to Aristotle can be recovered in them. For Hobbes, the validity of this conception is at the political level, while for Spinoza, it is first-personal and dependent on our imperfect knowledge of the future. Claims of similarity and influence such as these are always disputable, as Rutherford acknowledges. In particular, it remains unclear how much Hobbes and Spinoza owe specifically to Aristotle as opposed to the Stoics or ancient eudaimonists more generally. But Rutherford is ultimately at pains to argue for the sheer diversity of sources these early modern thinkers drew upon, and this it seems safe to affirm.

Kate Abramson's essay on Hume and Aristotle marks a turn in the volume toward contemporary scholarship in ethics. For the Hume that Abramson champions is sent forth to do battle not with Aristotle himself but with neo-Aristotle, represented in the main by Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. The battleground is moral psychology, specifically the supposed harmoniousness of the virtuous agent. Abramson argues that we sometimes find more commendable the person who acts in the face of temptation, and that neo-Aristotelians are ill-placed to accommodate this phenomenon using Aristotle's distinction between continence and true virtue. I entirely agree, and so should any card-carrying Aristotelian. But that is because temptation and continence are worlds apart in the cases that Abramson describes. Aristotle takes continence and incontinence (or 'weakness of will', akrasia) to involve holding to or abandoning one's rational resolutions in the face of the allure of disgraceful pleasures. That is why Neoptolemus cannot be called incontinent when he abandons his resolution to lie to Philoctetes for the noble pleasure of telling the truth (EN VII.9, 1151b17-22). Abramson's commendable temptations arise in cases of practical conflict, where what is, all things considered, best to do leaves out other worthwhile considerations. That suggests a positive neo-Aristotelian account of this phenomenon where Aristotle himself falls silent: we may allow the virtuous agent to feel the pull of these considerations and even regret at her inability to attend to them in the face of some more pressing demand. I do not, therefore, think the neo-Aristotelians' position is as hopeless as Abramson makes it out to be, though these are valuable philosophical issues that deserve to be paid more careful attention by proponents and detractors of Aristotelian ethics alike.

Manfred Kuehn would rather we not read Aristotle into Kant. There is no denying that Kant's ethics of autonomy sits uncomfortably alongside some formulations of Aristotle's eudaimonism, including Kant's own understanding of it, but Kuehn doesn't quite clinch the case, which seems to rest on his thought that Aristotle's ethics is based on our function as human beings while Kant's ethics is based on our function as rational beings who happen to be human. But one may reply that Aristotle takes our essential nature as humans to be rational and our goal to be rational activity, so more needs to be said. Likewise, when it comes to virtue, Aristotle is a good bit more rationalistic than Kuehn allows for. Certainly, it is wrong to say that virtue for Aristotle is merely a habit; rather, it is a state of the soul issuing in rational decisions (EN II.6, 1106b36-1107a2). Kuehn is right, however, to emphasize Kant's dependence on Stoic and neo-Stoic Christian sources for his thinking about virtue.

The volume concludes with Jennifer Welchman's narration of the vicissitudes of philosophical fashion in nineteenth-century English-language philosophy that consigned Aristotle to the status of historical curiosity before his triumphant return in the middle of the 20th century. The anxieties of doing moral philosophy after Darwin play a central role in this story, though one must here mention that the resulting emphasis on meta-ethics and the analysis of moral concepts is still very prominent in contemporary Anglophone philosophy. What Welchman describes as the revival of Aristotelianism in the past half-century thus represents a rupture in the contemporary landscape rather than a rapprochement. This complicated reception story reflects the difficulty of being faithful to the inevitably plural strands of thought within any period of philosophy, philosophers having always been a rather contentious bunch.

Almost without exception, the essays in this volume are both careful and provocative. They can certainly be read independently of each other, but the whole they constitute provides a fascinating experiment in a kind of historical scholarship seldom attempted even collectively in philosophy. Indeed, the sheer diversity of thinkers and ideas that Aristotle's ethical theory has inspired is perhaps all by itself untimely in the way Bernard Williams wanted history of philosophy to be, that is, disruptive of our intellectual and philosophical presuppositions.


1.   See "Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy" in M. Burnyeat (ed.), The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy (Princeton UP, 2006), 257-64.
2.   R. W. Sharples, Peripatetic Philosophy, 200 BC to AD 200: An Introduction and Collection of Sources in Translation (Cambridge UP, 2010).

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