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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North Korea and Areté

18 December 2011


Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle said that excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle is famous for saying, among other things, that excellence is not an act, but a habit. The Greek word for excellence — areté, ἀρετή — is also translated as “virtue,” so the same Aristotelian quote is sometimes rendered virtue is not an act but a habit. These variant translations are justified, as they point to the close interrelationship between excellence and virtue in Aristotle.

Kim Jong-il impoverished his people and left the world a worse place than he found it.

Aristotle was a common sense philosopher before there was any such thing as common sense philosophy, and his moral psychology is equally commonsensical. Aristotle maintained that people enjoy doing the things that they are good at doing, and so people make an effort at getting good at doing certain things so that they can enjoy these activities all the more. I think that this is largely correct.

The elder Kim looking frail a few months before dying; the younger Kim Jong-un, heir apparent, looking scared.

It would not be overstating the case to say that many individuals actively seek out opportunities for cultivating excellence. These opportunities can vary dramatically from place to place and time to time. Certain socio-economic systems will be richer in opportunities for certain kinds of excellence, so we find excellence unevenly distributed across history and geography.

The blackout of North Korea is both literal and metaphorical. If it was not the Hermit Kingdom in the past, under its communist autocrats it certainly has become a Hermit Kingdom today.

If Aristotle’s moral psychology is more or less correct, it would then stand to reason that we will find excellence-seeking individuals at all times and places, so that these efforts toward excellence are likely to be directed into whatever channels happen to be available.

They know how to goosestep in the DPRK.

Today the news has brought word that Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot, has died. I have written repeatedly about Kim Jong-il and North Korea, as these provide a radical example of state failure. Even while North Korea is the paradigm case of a failed state, there is a sense in which its rulers have chosen to rule over just such a failed state, though we usually think of failure as an accident. This is failure by design. But what then is the design? In a word: the military.

While the Kim family has been the despotic focus of attention in North Korea, the country is really ruled by the military. And while it is often reported that North Korea maintains an enormous military of a million men under arms, it is rarely reported how the North Korean military is not merely large, but is also an innovative, aggressive, and essentially meritocratic institution (assuming you also know to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing).

Sometimes dictators will create a bloated military of conscripts for bragging rights, but this does not accurately describe the North Korean military. People who study such things say that the North Korean military is an impressive institution in terms of its discipline, organization, and training. While they cannot count on having the most advanced technology and the most sophisticated weapons systems, they can train relentlessly and by all reports they do.

Knowing this to be the case, I would guess that one of the few opportunities to pursue excellence in North Korea would be by way of entering the military. Another opportunity would be to be a gymnast, dancer, or other performer in the enormous spectacles that were staged for the “Dear Leader.” Those are narrow options, but in the nation-state in which saying the wrong thing can mean a life sentence to the gulag for you and your family, it is best not to even try to pursue excellence in literature, art, entertainment, or anything else that might “send a message” and therefore be considered dangerous or subversive. Sports are relatively safe, and we all recall how the Eastern Bloc Warsaw Pact nation-states cultivated extensive sports training programs during the Cold War.

If the only (safe) outlets for a people’s pursuit of excellence is the military or sports, this is going to profoundly affect the cultural life of a country. It is also going to channel a lot of very clever and innovative people into the military who would not, under other circumstances, choose a career in the military. The talents of these intelligent men and women, indirectly conscripted through the suppression of other activities by which they might have pursued other forms of excellence, are in North Korea at the service of the military and therefore at the service of the state. These are the people who rule North Korea.

How will the military rule North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il? Will they allow his inexperienced son, Kim Jong-un, to assume his place as a figurehead, and continue to rule the country to the greater glory of the DPRK military at the expense of all else? Some self-perpetuating institutions do exactly this; they have an overriding incentive to maintain the system that has put them in control and which disproportionately benefits them at the expense of their countrymen.

There are problems, however. A military establishment of more than a million soldiers is a sufficiently large organization for factions to emerge, and for those factions to be quite large. If, say, each son of Kim Jong-il could command the loyalty of a third of the army, each would still have military forces far larger than those of most nation-states. Internal power struggles have almost certainly already begun, and the issue of these struggles is not likely to be decided for months, if not years. Kim Jong-un is still quite young, and much could happen before he has any opportunity to exercise control (or for others to exercise control in his name).

Internal power struggles in the DPRK could be an opportunity for outside powers to intervene, or to use whatever levers they have available to influence the outcome in North Korea. But China and South Korea, the geographical neighbors, will be most concerned about stability and avoiding a flood of refugees should a crisis emerge. Furthermore, China will not want to take any action that might be interpreted as condoning either interference in internal affairs or questioning the legitimacy of a one-party state, since either action could be turned around and used against China in turn.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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