Tuesday, November 26, 2013


C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle on Practical Wisdom: Nicomachean Ethics VI. Translated with an Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 280. ISBN 9780674072107. $39.95.

Reviewed by J.J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania ( johnjm@sas.upenn.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

This volume includes the usual front matter and an introduction (1-41), a chapter-by-chapter translation with "analysis" (notes on certain parts of the translation printed on the facing pages, 43-87), a "commentary" (more notes printed continuously, 89-264), and indices of topics (265-267) and lines cited (269-280). The text (not reproduced) is reported to be Bywater except where indicated otherwise in the commentary (43).

In the introduction, Reeve begins by stating that the "major aim of Nicomachean Ethics VI is to define the relevant type of correct reason (orthos logos)" (1). For Reeve, this correct reason involves "the virtue or excellence of the sort of theoretical reason exhibited in the most rigorous type of scientific knowledge" (1). It is this theoretical reason that is supposed to show that "happiness is so connected to human virtue that the happy person is the one who, among other things, fulfills his function . . . " (2). Theoretical reason apparently discovers that human beings have a certain function, that acting according to their function will make them happy, and that these deliverances of theoretical reason will help individuals to decide what to do. So ethics has a "theoretical" component (3). The rest of the introduction pursues this theme in sections on "The Rational Part," "Theoretical Wisdom," "Practical Wisdom," "The Best Human Life," "The Place of NE VI in Aristotle's Thought," and "Aristotle's Ethical Thought in Perspective."

In "The Rational Part," Reeve observes that Aristotle's countenancing practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom as two virtues of thought depends on his psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics, distinguishing "two kinds of beings," whose archai admit or don't admit of being otherwise (3-4). In "Theoretical Wisdom," Reeve suggests that "Aristotelian science," which addresses things whose archai don't admit of being otherwise, leads one to understand, for example, that "all bird meats are healthy" (4). In "Practical Wisdom," Reeve argues that this view of bird meats allows the practical reasoner to determine that "this [bird meat] is healthy," helped along by "the true belief that this meat is bird meat" (8). This calculation precedes a "practical demonstration" in which the major premiss is the "Definition of happiness," which is supplied by theoretical wisdom, and the conclusion is an action—"he straightway eats it" (9). Reeve goes on to restate and summarize the connections (12). In "The Best Human Life," Reeve states that "What scientific investigation of ourselves and the world tells us, in Aristotle's view, is that our understanding (nous) is the divine element in us" (17).

In "The place of NE VI in Aristotle's Thought," Reeve begins with the fragmentary Protrepticus, in which "human beings are identified more than anything with their understanding" (19), considers parts of the Eudemian Ethics, and proceeds to the Magna Moralia, stopping short of On Virtues and Vices. These are the sources for "Aristotle's Thought," and according to Reeve, although there are differences among Aristotle's ethical writings, "for the most part they seem to be superficial differences in vocabulary or in the level of development of doctrine" (25). In the end, the Nicomachean Ethics recognizes "two different types or grades of happiness, one incomplete, constituted by activity in accord with full virtue of character, another complete, constituted by activity in accord with theoretical wisdom, with the first being for the sake of the second" (28).

In "Aristotle's Ethical Thought in Perspective," Reeve derives the "Perspective" from Kant and Sidgwick, the former viewing the ancients as "egoists in embracing eudaimonia as the ultimate end of all rational action" (28) and the latter viewing Aristotle as an egoist rather than as an utilitarian (29). According to Reeve, "Kant and Sidgwick are right in thinking that Aristotle is a rational egoist" (29). Reeve apparently intends to remove any opprobrium that might attach to rational egoism by arguing that, for Aristotle, when one pursues the virtues of character, especially justice, in improving oneself, "a virtuous person is deliberately choosing the complete employment of complete virtue and so is deliberately choosing what benefits others for its own sake, too" (30).

This volume has a somewhat complex relation to the tradition of interpretation as found in, for example, Greenwood, which is the one English work on Book VI which Reeve includes in his list of books (xiii-xiv).1 Greenwood, which appeared first in 1909, was given a new lease on life in Gregory Vlastos's Arno Press reprint series in 1973, and it has retained some influence ever since. In Greenwood, one finds the so-called practical syllogism, but it is treated in a way different from Reeve's, since, according to Greenwood, "Phronēsis is . . . concerned with the formation of the major premiss, in conjunction with moral aretē. Just as theoretic nous by epagōgē forms universals from particulars to serve as the premisses for theoretic deduction, so practical nous by epagōgē forms universals from particulars to serve as the premisses for practical deduction."2 The difference from Reeve's proposal will be apparent at once: For Greenwood, the premisses are the work of phronēsis and virtue of character. Hardie (not included in Reeve's list) makes a related point in saying that "the capacity to think truly of ends is part of practical wisdom."3 The effect of Reeve's interpretation on this point and on others is to make Aristotle's view of practical wisdom look more like his view of theoretical wisdom than the tradition sometimes has seen it to be.

Another point of difference is the treatment of logos and orthos logos. Reeve sometimes seems to think that the logos or orthos logos is a reason in an argument, and so he can speak of reasons in the plural (e.g., 10, 36, 92), since there will be different reasons in different arguments. According to Greenwood, "There is no need to press the question whether by 'reason' is meant a part of the soul, or a faculty, or a process, or a quality. The distinction between these four things is often neglected, in book VI and elsewhere: thus in chapter xiii the orthos logos is said to be phronēsis and also to be kata phronēsin. Ho orthos logos means therefore 'the reasoning part of the soul in its good condition,' or 'the good quality of the reasoning part of the soul,' or 'the faculty of good reasoning,' or 'the process of good reasoning.'"4 There is no recognition here of multiple reasons or right reasons. Greenwood's or a similar partitive view appears to have been held for a very long time, since it may be found in St. Thomas, who comments on 1139a22-27 as rendered into the Latin of the time, "Consiliari autem est actus unius partis rationis."5 Ratio here is not considered as something of which there might be many but as something of which there might be parts.

Reeve has done useful service in highlighting some features in the tradition of interpretation, which itself is far from monolithic, by agreeing or disagreeing with them, in these and other particulars. Specialists might use this book with profit to sharpen their understanding of Aristotle's treatment of phronēsis by comparing the introduction, translation/analysis, and commentary with Aristotle's text.

In the next printing, the press might want to replace "that" with 'than' (6), "of" with 'or' (7), Magites with Margites(62), "Meletus" with 'Miletus' (183), to delete a dittographic "to" (157), and so on. A substantive and current bibliography would increase the book's value for some readers, as would more references in the text to the tradition of interpretation with an index nominum to help readers identify authors with whom Reeve may be engaging or on whom he may be relying.


1.   L.H.G. Greenwood, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Book Six. With Essays, Notes, and Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909.
2.   Greenwood, 51.
3.   W.F.R. Hardie, Aristotle's Ethical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 235.
4.   Greenwood, 167-168. For more on the tradition of interpretation here, see BMCR 2010.11.44.
5.  Sancti Thomae Aquinatis In Decem Libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum Expositio, editio tertia, ed. R.M. Spiazzi, O.P. (Turin: Marietti, 1964), 310.

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