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  • Contemplating the Beautiful: The Practical Importance of Theoretical Excellence in Aristotle’s Ethics
  • James L. Wood (bio)

Aristotle, unlike plato, famously distinguishes φρόνησις from , practical from theoretical wisdom, in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. He distinguishes them on the basis of both their objects and their psychic spheres: is the excellence or virtue (ἀρετή) of the scientific faculty, τὸ ἐπιστημονικόν, “by which we contemplate [θεωρου̑μεν] the sort of beings whose principles [ἀρχαί] do not admit of being otherwise,” while φρόνησις is an excellence of the calculative faculty, τὸ λογιστικόν, by which we contemplate “the sort of beings that admit of being otherwise” (VI.1, 1139a6–8).1 Φρόνησις is skilled and experienced deliberation about human action and emotion, and in particular about “the sort of things that relate to (πρός) living well in general” (VI.5,1140a28); so φρόνησις guides right action, and as it turns out, directly entails excellence of character, ἠθική ἀρετή (VI.13, 1145a1–2). , on the other hand, while necessary for complete happiness (VI.12, 1144a1–6), “contemplates none of the things that make a human being happy” (VI.12, 1143b19–20), because it contemplates not changeable human affairs, circumstances, and actions, but eternal and unchanging realities (VI.6–7; X.7–8; cf. On the Soul, III.9, 432b26–433a1). Θεωρία, contemplation itself, is defined with reference to in Book X, where contemplation is made the basis of the highest human happiness as the excellent activity of intellect (νου̑ς) by which “beautiful and divine” realities are apprehended (X.7, 1177a15–18 and following). In contrast, the excellence of practical activity (both φρόνησις and ἠθική ἀρετή) is explicitly distinguished from the excellent theoretical activity of νου̑ς in θεωρία and relegated to a merely “secondary” importance (X.8, 1178a9 and following).2 [End Page 391]

We might well conclude from this account that theoretical activity has nothing to do with practical activity, even if each is independently necessary for complete human happiness, and even if, as Aristotle says, practical excellence is somehow necessary to prepare the way for theoretical excellence (cf. VI.13, 1145a6–11). I wish to counter this impression, however, by showing that there is a theoretical dimension to excellent practical activity.3 More precisely, I will argue that theoretical activity contributes to practical excellence by furnishing the principles (ἀρχαί) of practical reasoning to the calculative faculty and the motivating end (τέλος) of action to the irrational-appetitive (τὸ; ἄλογον) part of the soul. The intellectual faculty that performs this theoretical activity is νου̑ς; the principles that νου̑ς apprehends are the first premises of ethical and political deliberation; and the τέλος that νου̑ς holds up to the appetitive soul as an orienting and motivating object is το καλόν.4 What distinguishes this activity from the theoretical activity that furnishes the principles of scientific reasoning (ἐπιστήμη) for the sake of knowledge is both the kinds of objects studied and the purpose of the study. One typically studies mathematics or astronomy in order to gain knowledge, not to act virtuously; however, one can certainly study the principles of human nature for the sake of virtuous action (as well as knowledge), as Aristotle himself does in the Ethics and other treatises (cf. II.2, 1103b27–29).5 Moreover, the theoretical study of the most “beautiful and divine” realities, described in Book X of the Ethics and Book XII of the Metaphysics, raises the possibility of a direct contribution of θεωρία at the highest levels to πρα̑ξις through the mediating activity of νου̑ς in the contemplation of the highest beauty and divinity.

In what follows I will develop and defend these points through a close examination of Aristotle’s discussion of these concepts. My argument has three main parts. The first examines the role of thought in excellent action, the second brings out [End Page 392] the significance of το καλόν as the universal object of practical excellence, and the third argues in three subsections for the contribution in different ways of theoretical to practical excellence.

1. The Dependence of Desire on Thought in Excellent Action

As is clear from his concluding remarks in Book VI, where he declares that the possession of φρόνησις entails the possession of all the virtues of character (VI.13, 1145a1–2), Aristotle holds that the ἀρεταί of practical thought and character, φρόνησις and ἠθική ἀρετή, are interdependent and mutually implicating in virtuous choice and action. Thought needs desire in order to be practically effective...


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