Areté and Selection

12 January 2012


Aristotle as depicted in a medieval woodcut. Aristotle was a central influence shaping the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, the direct ancestor to our own civilization.

In several posts I have written about the Aristotelian conception of excellence, i.e., Areté (ἀρετή in the original Greek, and sometimes translated as “virtue,” just like Machiavelli’s Virtù). Throughout Aristotle’s ethics there is a clear implication that human beings take pleasure in achieving excellence, and in so doing experience a proper sense of pride in their accomplishment. Here is Aristotle’s take on this:

“…the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them…”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Rackham translation of I.7.1098a

Excellence is not only a virtue, and the good for man, but is also desirable:

“…the activities of the part of the soul that is by nature superior must be preferable for those persons who are capable of attaining either all the soul’s activities or two out of the three; since that thing is always most desirable for each person which is the highest to which it is possible for him to attain.”

In regard to the “two out of three” reference in the above, the Aristotle text at Perseus Digital Library has this footnote:

i.e. the two lower ones, the three being the activities of the theoretic reason, of the practical reason, and of the passions that although irrational are amenable to reason.

Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, 1333a

This has been called Aristotle’s principle of perfection by Fred Miller, who cites a different translation of this same passage. Fred Miller in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aristotle’s Political Theory, includes a list of Presuppositions of Aristotle’s Politics, which names the Principle of teleology as the first of Aristotle’s presuppositions:

Principle of teleology Aristotle begins the Politics by invoking the concept of nature (see Political Naturalism). In the Physics Aristotle identifies the nature of a thing above all with its end or final cause (Physics II.2.194a28–9, 8.199b15–18). The end of a thing is also its function (Eudemian Ethics II.1.1219a8), which is its defining principle (Meteorology IV.12.390a10–11). On Aristotle’s view plants and animals are paradigm cases of natural existents, because they have a nature in the sense of an internal causal principle which explains how it comes into being and behaves (Phys. II.1.192b32–3). For example, an acorn has an inherent tendency to grow into an oak tree, so that the tree exists by nature rather than by craft or by chance. The thesis that human beings have a natural function has a fundamental place in the Eudemian Ethics II.1, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, and Politics I.2. The Politics further argues that it is part of the nature of human beings that they are political or adapted for life in the city-state. Thus teleology is crucial for the political naturalism which is at the foundation of Aristotle’s political philosophy. (For discussion of teleology see the entry on Aristotle’s biology.)

Now, there is no question that Aristotle was as Greek as any other Greek, and was very much a man of his time, even while being one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. I make this obvious statement only because I must follow it with the observation that Aristotle’s very Greek philosophy was eventually appropriated by medieval European philosophers, and there it took on a second life, providing the theoretical framework for Scholasticism.

When we consider the role of Aristotle in medieval scholastic theology, and the ongoing role of medieval civilization in the constitution of our own industrial-technological civilization, we can see how hard it has been for us to overcome teleological thinking. Medieval civilization is the direct ancestor to our civilization; there was no catastrophic break between the Middle Ages and Modernity, but rather a smooth and continuous tradition that left many aspects of medievalism intact well into modern times.

Because of Aristotle’s pervasive teleology, he formulated his ethics and his politics teleologically, and transmitted them into this form to posterity, and it was in this form that medieval philosophers received them. In a Greek context I don’t think that Aristotle’s teleology had quite the meaning that it came to have, and indeed scholastic philosopher’s developed Aristotle’s distinction between potency and act into an entire metaphysics in its own right. In the context of a civilization almost entirely constructed upon an eschatological basis, Aristotle’s teleology and his conception of potential take on a meaning that they did not have for Ancient Greeks.

Medieval philosophers more or less ran wild with Aristotle, and I think it is this potent admixture of Aristotelian teleology and medieval eschatology that gives us that Arthur Lovejoy famously called the Great Chain of Being — the metaphysical idea of an exhaustive hierarchy in which there is a place for everything, and everything is to be found in its proper place. Linnaeus eventually naturalized the great chain of being as a system of taxonomy, and the Linnaean system continues to be used today, with evolutionary phylogeny only gradually forcing revisions to cladistic systematics.

There was no need for Aristotle to look for any alternative formulation for this ethical and political views, and his metaphysics were adequate to the scientific knowledge of his time. But since Aristotle’s time we have learned a lot, and one of the most important things we have learned is how to explain the natural world, and our place within it, without recourse to teleology. Now, I really believe that if Aristotle himself could see the naturalistic account of the world produced by contemporary science he would be enthusiastic beyond words. But the Aristotle read through Scholastic spectacles might well be horrified. There is nothing in Aristotle that suggests to me that he was committed to any anti-naturatlistic mode of thought, but Aristotelian doctrines do become anti-naturalistic in the hands of the Schoolmen.

Thus it is no surprise that Aristotle did not recognize that his conception of Areté has strongly selective connotations. If human beings find it desirable to engage in activities that are, “the highest to which it is possible for him to attain,” I think you will find that people truly enjoy doing these things. You will also find that people generally don’t much enjoy doing things that they are not at all good at doing (acknowledging important recreational exceptions — I enjoy swimming but am in no sense good at it). On the whole, then, individuals will be attracted to activities at which they excel, while they will be indifferent to, or perhaps even distance themselves from, activities at which they do not excel.

Moreover, when you become highly competent in some activity, you want to engage in this activity with others who are also highly competent. For example, if you are really good at tennis, you will want to find other really good tennis players in order to play a really satisfying game. You would not be able to have a really good game with someone who knew nothing about tennis. And so there is an elaborate system of rating tennis players that can be used to pair players of a similar skill level. I once read a quote from an institutionalized philosopher (I think it was Richard Cartwright, but I’m not certain; I’ll look up the quote later) saying that he did not like to discuss philosophy with those who had not studied the subject. Same idea as the tennis ratings. An institutionalized philosopher is a like a seeded tennis player.

The preference of the individual for activities at which the individual excels, further escalated by the preference of groups of individuals for others who have attained a similar level of excellence, produces a strong selective effect in human communities. This is one source — one source among many — of what has been called “the great sort.” People sort themselves into communities by temperament and inclination. Individual temperament and inclination tend to lead a person toward a particular community. One of the characteristics of a community is that it tends to be good at something, like Switzerland is good at clock and watch making. Something as large as a nation-state will contain considerable diversity, so there are probably many Swiss who have never assembled a watch in their life, but something as small as an academic or sports clique can be aggressively exclusive to a particular interest or talent.

There is something essentially anti-democratic — or, at least, non-egalitarian — about cliques, and, by extension, Aristotelian Areté. In its best exemplification it produces most of what is valuable in human civilization; in its worst exemplification it is insufferably aristocratic in the worst sense: ossified and unimaginative. Thus it has become one of the great problems of the age of popular sovereignty to understand and to cultivate excellence for its own sake. Popular culture is littered with failed examples of the cultivation of excellence in democratic societies. There are pathetic attempts to identify the talented when they are young, but this is almost always distorted by family connections and prejudice. And there are the monetary rewards that have created the contemporary “culture industry” and its “commodity music” (as well as “commodity painting” and commodity arts of all kinds), which is without any true cultural value. And there is the population culture fascination with fame. The potent mixture of fame of money has meant that people become involved in cinema because wnat to be rich and famous, and not because they can make great movies.

This is a problem, and it is an admittedly unresolved problem. Egalitarianism subordinates excellence to the lowest common denominator, and leaves us with the civilization not worthy of the name; aristocracy at times manages to advance excellence, but much more often it declines into mere inherited privilege, as bereft of cultural value as civilization today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Areté and Selection”

  1. Tremendous post. Excellence is a tightrope between the mediocrity of ossified “blue bloodedness” and undisciplined passions of the masses. Both are deeply problematic.

    There is no resolution I think. Just an oscillation between the two as a tenuous balance is achieved with one rising as excellence descends into either vapid aristocracy or (in today’s world) crass consumerism.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      I’m very pleased you found something of value in this.

      I agree that there is no resolution, but there is more than an oscillation. The tension between stagnant discipline and undisciplined passion results in temporary compromises between the two. A particular compromise defines a particular society.

      The compromise between heroic excellence and vulgar consumerism is one of many patterns that emerge in time and come to define a period of history. And I think it is the tensions between the many different patterns that ultimately drives macro-historical change.

      Very Respectfully Yours,


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