- From Natural Character to Moral Virtue in Aristotle by Mariska Leunissen
In her new book, Leunissen, author of Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle's Science of Nature (2010), turns her expertise in Aristotle's biology to the issue of virtue of character. The book contains some fascinating material from Aristotle's biological works and also material from relatively neglected parts of the Politics, including discussions of ethnography, climate, physiognomy, and "eugenics." Leunissen's thesis is that an examination of this material will provide insight into how people become morally virtuous, and especially why Aristotle excludes women from this group.
Leunissen suggests that it is Aristotle's biology that leads to his views about women, but that does not exclude the possibility of the social prejudices of ancient Athens from infecting both. For example, when Aristotle thinks that women have cold blood and are oversensitive to pain, it is not clear whether the biological grounds for his so thinking are immune to various social prejudices about women. Sometimes, indeed, Aristotle's biology seems to be at odds with his views about women. For example, since hot-blooded male babies need to be acclimatized to the cold in preparation for later military service (117, 180), according to Aristotle, would females, who have cold blood by nature, not be more suitable for warfare and developing courage, according to Aristotle's own assumptions? Aristotle's ideas about pain in women, if correctly attributed, are even more startling. The ancient Greeks knew what kinds of pain women could endure, and had a special word for the pangs of childbirth. Be that as it may, I shall instead focus on what I take to be the crux of Leunissen's view that a biological approach is essential to understanding how virtues of character are developed. This argument comes in her chapter 5.
Leunissen writes, "In Physics VII 3, Aristotle provides one of the lengthiest discussions of the physical process of virtue acquisition in the corpus" (110). At the beginning of this chapter of the Physics, Aristotle distinguishes alteration, where an existing object persists while taking on a new property, from what Aristotle elsewhere treats as substantial change, where a new object, for example, a bronze statue, comes into being. If bronze becomes fluid, that is an alteration, but if a statue comes into being, we have a new object, the statue, which is made out of the bronze and which we say is "brazen." Nor are dispositions of body and soul alterations along this line of thinking. Now one might think that Aristotle's point is that bronze spheres cannot be reduced to their matter; and dispositions cannot [End Page 552] be reduced to their material basis. Aristotle also here treats dispositions as relational and he goes on to say that acquiring or losing a disposition involves alterations of other things. In the case of virtues and vices of character, they are related to bodily pleasures and pains that are alterations of the sensory part of the soul. (Physics VII 3 is four pages long in the Oxford Classical Text, but Leunissen omits the discussion of virtues of thought at the end of the chapter.)
Leunissen suggests that virtues of character may be related to elements of the soul, as health is related to bodily elements. It is not clear what the elements of the soul are, but if they include desires, feelings, and thinking, none of which Aristotle describes in purely physiological terms, the Physics is silent on their relationship to virtue of character. Nor do we have a discussion in the Physics about how particular feelings (that are types of pleasure or pain) so arise that they are appropriate in particular contexts, or how practical reasoning so develops that virtue of character involves deliberative desire and practical wisdom. In short, there is no account of virtue acquisition in the Physics. True, we are told that virtues and vices relate to pleasures and pains, but that point is already noted and refined in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Furthermore, according...