Ethics and Community in Aristotle
ABSTRACT: I show that Aristotles ethics is determined by his notion of communities which are in turn determined by hundreds of themes in his Topics-sameness and difference, part and whole, better than, etc. These are tools for all dialectical investigations into being and action (viz. Top. I.11 104b2) for they secure definitions and get at essences of things or their aspects. Reflecting structures of being and good, they allow Aristotle to arrive at objective reality and good. Being tools for all investigations into being and values, we are not free to reject them, nor can we have any discourse or claim to reality or good. I show how permutating the combination of these topics allows for subsequent sub-communities which are common to some. I offer an Aristotelian explanation for the origin of these topics and conclude that ethics is determined by communities, which in turn are determined by education.
Aristotle's ethics is determined by his notion of communities which are determined by hundreds of topics in his Topicssameness and difference, part and whole, better than, etc.. The topics are tools for all dialectical investigations into being and action (viz. I.11 104b2) for they secure definitions and get at essences of things or their aspects. Reflecting structures of being and good, the topics can get at objective reality and good. Being tools for all investigations, we are not free to reject them or we cannot have any discourse or claim to reality or good. I show how permutating the combination of these topics allow for subsequent 'sub-communities' which are common to some. I offer an Aristotelian explanation for the origin of these topics and conclude that ethics is determined by communities, which in turn are determined by education.
The Topics seeks to discover a method by which we reason(1) from generally accepted opinions (endox_n) about any problem (100a18-19, 100a30-b18)i.e., dialectical reasoning. By "generally accepted opinions,"Aristotle means the kind of "opinion held by everyone or by the majority or by the wiseeither all of the wise or the majority or the most famous of themand which is not paradoxical; for one would accept the opinion of the wise, if it is not opposed to the views of the majority" (104a8-13). Since Aristotle contrasts dialectical reasoning with demonstrative reasoning which proceeds from true and primary premises (100a27-28) and are supported by the "things themselves," it seems easy to suppose that dialectic cannot get us to objective first principles.(2) However, that Aristotle believes in the objectivity of dialectic is apparent in Topics I.18 where he discusses the usefulness to clarity of examining various meanings of a term. The topic examining various meanings of a term continues to be employed throughout the Topics. Such an examination ensures that "our reasonings shall be in accordance with the actual facts (kat' auto to pragma) and not addressed merely to the term used" (108a17-22). In I.11, he speaks of the contribution of dialectic to "choice and avoidance, or to truth and knowledge" (104b2). Finally, dialectical propositions are constituted by definitions which capture a thing's essence (101b38). By procuring the right propositions through correct definitions, the outcome of dialectical reasoning would be objective. This means that dialectic can provide us with truth and knowledge about reality and the good, rather than just a bunch of opinions which merely cohere.
Dialectic gives us truth and goodness, how are these ascertained? Aristotle answers this question in Topics I.4. Dialectical arguments begin with propositions or problems (101b15, 104a3-4), and reasonings reason about problems. Propositions and problems are similar for they are constituted by the following four predicables. The predicables are a property, or a definition, or a genus, or an accident. The four predicables together, i.e., in some combination, rather than each taken by itself, constitute propositions or problems. These four are important because they contribute to our understanding of a substance, or any of the nine categories of quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, activity, and passivity (viz. Topics I.9 103b23-24). Definition is the focus of all predicables so that directly or indirectly, the predicables give us definitions (viz. Topics I.6).
Aristotle maintains that every proposition or problem tells us about a genus, or a peculiarity, or an accident. What is peculiar is divisible into that which tells us something's essence and is a definition; and that which does not tell us the essence though it belongs to the thing alone. This latter is called a property. Both a definition and a property are predicated convertibly of the thing (viz. Posterior Analytics I.22, 83a23-24, Topics 102a18-20), and they constitute in part the kind of materials from which dialectical reasonings start. For instance, the definition of man can constitute a dialectical proposition as follows: '"An animal that walks on two feet" is the definition of man, is it not?' (101b30) Whether such a proposition is examined dialectically depends on whether the thesis is one that is puzzling to those who need argument (105a2-4, viz. 104a3ff or chapter 10).(3)
Knowledge of the definition of a thing which all four predicables discussed contribute is crucial because Aristotle says that people cannot argue dialectically unless they are directed at the same thing or the actual fact ( Topics I.18, 108a17-23, 105a31-33). It is clear how definitions give us essences. But the other three predicables also contribute to definition because they can destroy it if the propositions they make up are proven otherwise. Aristotle says,
The lesson is that dialectic gets its materials from being and its aspectsnamely, its genus, property, and accident. The being revealed is an objective reality or good that is accessible to us. Aristotle's talk of definition which captures the essence shows that there are things with essences in the world. For instance, he tells us that the investigation of sameness and difference helps us define things and recognize what a particular thing is (viz. 108a36-108b25). Given that the genus captures the sameness of different objects, it too contributes to the definition. By the same token, recognizing the differentia proper to a thing (108b6) entails recognizing the things that are peculiar but not essential, and those that are accidental. By examining the predicates that tell us essences, distinguishing such predicates from those which might seem to tell us essences but just capture the thing's properties or accidents, dialectic distinguishes a thing's essence and accidents. Once we know an essence, we can categorize it with, or separate it from others, and know it better.
The further fact that Aristotle is not just dealing with words or opinions without objective reality is evident when he tells us to get clear about the various senses in which a term might be used so that we are clear about the various aspects of reality, or what he calls the "differences of things." (105a33) Clarifying these sameness and difference ensures that we are directing our minds at "actual facts" (108a21) or at "the same thing" (108a23). The whole of Topics I.15 consists in different ways of examining if a term has several meanings or one.(4) Dialectical investigations of sameness and difference give us definitions of beings that are objective because of sameness and difference that are objective.(5) Hence the procedure of (i) focusing on definitions which capture essences, genera, properties, and accidents; (ii) looking to sameness and difference to ascertain if we are dealing with the same or different things; and (iii) looking at the various senses of a term (again using sameness and difference) to ensure that we are using the same sense and hence directing our minds at the same thing; are all ways determined by the things in the world, by their various aspects (e.g., goodness), and by their relations with other things.
By showing the objectivity of reality and good which form the subject matters of Aristotelian dialectic, we see that dialectic already proceeds from common opinions based in reality and hence they cannot be rejected without risking the possibility of giving up intelligible arguments or being. Given that dialectic gives us being and the good through definition and hence helps make reality and the good intelligible, we would also be giving these up if we just rejected correct dialectical propositions freely.
From the objectivity of dialectic and how it gets at reality and the good via definitions, the Topics is not simply a handbook of strategies that is pure form without any matter.(6) Contrariwise, it provides us with ways of coming up with arguments both for and against something,(7) which ways are intimately bound up with truth and goodness because these topoi allow us to arrive at definitions of things both practical and theoretical. That Aristotle stresses the importance of amassing "an abundance of material" (163a5) for arguments is significant. That definitions form a significant role in such materials is evident when he says "(m)oreover, you should have a good supply of definitions . . . for it is by means of these that reasonings are carried on." (163b20-23) These materials not only lay bare the problems and make us see clearer what is at stake but they also lead us to philosophical knowledge. Aristotle says,
Dialectical reasoning is a means to ascertaining truth and making correct choices about actions. We have seen how sameness and difference work as a topic. Let us look at some other topics also useful for constructing arguments for ethical purposes.(8) In Topics III, Aristotle discusses topics which will aid in our choice of what is superior between two things that are closely related. He believes that when superiority is shown, "the mind will agree that whichever of the two alternatives is actually superior is the more worthy of choice" (116a10-13). Some of these topics are: the lasting is more choiceworthy than that which is less so; that which is chosen for its own sake is preferable to that which is chosen for the sake of something else; the absolute good is better than that which is relative to an individual; what is self-sufficient is preferable to what is not; and what is in itself more noble is preferable to what is desirable for something else, etc.. Aristotle does not give reasons for the choiceworthiness of one of these pairs over the other, just as he does not give reasons for employing similarity and difference, the greater and lesser, etc. for ascertaining truth and good. He does not offer any explanations because he thinks that these topics are obvious. Topics for constructing arguments for and against something, or for the choice of an action, constitute the generally accepted opinions (endoxa) for these are truly common to all in that everyone must know them to define something and hence conduct a discussion with others.
Using the more and less permanence in our reasoning to show that of two things, one is more permanent than another will lead to an obvious choice of action. Implicit in everyone's understanding of permanence is that the more permanent something is, the better it is, and this topic with its intrinsic value is not further explained due to its clarity and acceptance by everyone (viz. 116a13-14). Aristotle continues by saying that one should direct one's argument or discussion to showing that something is good, for this is what determines the choice of action. He says, "for everything aims at the good" (116a20). That everything is directed at the good needs no discussion. He also claims that there is an absolute criterion of what is better and more choiceworthy, and this is the better knowledge (116a22). This is an explicit statement that when it comes to these topics, the thing that is absolutely better is already determined: such as, the more permanent is superior to the less, what is choiceworthy for its own sake is better than that for the sake of something else, and the absolutely or naturally good is better than what is not by nature.(9) Due to the determinateness and obviousness of these topics to common opinions, Aristotle employs them for ethical investigations. Since dialectic proceeds from topics investigating definitions and leads to truth about reality and the good, employing these topics for his ethical investigations lets Aristotle attain the essence of good.
Let us look at Aristotle's ethics for some examples of his use of these topics and how they determine his view of the good. Recall that dialectic proceeds from the topics to establish propositions for arguments to reach truth. The establishment of propositions serve the purpose of arriving at definitions. Definitions are crucial as the following shows. "Most of the matters of controversy and puzzlement will become clear if what happiness should be thought to be is properly defined" (1215a20-22). Since virtue and wisdom are commonly ascribed to happiness, Aristotle says, "first we must look into virtue and wisdom, and discover the nature of each" (1216a39-b1). He wants to see how they are parts of the good life, either in themselves or as a result of actions from them. Besides definitions and the topics common to all, something else is also needed. Common opinions (endoxa) that are common to some but not all are needed too. Endoxa that are common to some but not all are how most commentators understand Aristotle's common opinions. I differ from them in believing that there is another set of opinions that is common to all that form the basis of all dialectic: these are the topics such as the greater/ lesser, the choiceworthy in itself/ the choiceworthy for the sake of something else, etc.. However, that endoxa common to some also come into play is evident for Aristotle says "(i)t would be superfluous to examine all the opinions about happiness that find adherents" (1214b29). He discards children's opinions, the views of the many, and only considers the opinions of the wise for "it would be strange to present argument to those who need not argument, but experience"(10) (1215a2-3).
From these passages, it is clear that Aristotle takes common opinions that are common to some (or appearances) as starting points of his dialectic, and uses arguments to demonstrate from those things that are correctly said. It is important that he starts with things correctly said and not everything that has been said. This is consistent with his considering the opinions of the wise but not the opinions of the many who are unreflective and children. Even though Aristotle concedes that there are correct starting points, he thinks that customary expressions of these opinions are confused. A stark example of something that has been correctly said but expressed in confusion is happiness. He says, "Now happiness has been agreed to be the greatest and best of human goods" (1217a202-21). Despite the agreement on the name of happiness, different opinions exist about the life it denotes. Aristotle notes that "everyone attributes happiness to three lives, the political, the philosophical, and the pleasure-loving" (1216a28-30). So despite the fact that these opinions are correct about the highest good, they are not clear about what it is. Aristotle's task is to construct the arguments which will demonstrate the essence of what happiness is. When one looks at his arguments, it is clear that they proceed from the topics that are common to all. Only by proceeding from these topics that are common to all can Aristotle say, "Now a dialectical proposition is a question which accords with the opinion held by everyone (pasin) . . ."(11) (103b9) Such a passage continues with reference to topics that are common to the majority or the wise. This supports my earlier point that topics that are common to some are needed too. But let us first look at how the topics that are common to all aid in the definition of happiness.
In Eudemian Ethics II, Aristotle investigates the definition of happiness. He distinguishes all goods to be within the soul or without it and maintains that those in the soul are more choiceworthy than those outside since wisdom, virtue, and pleasure are not only in the soul but each is also valued as an end for everyone. He then distinguishes those things in the soul into capacities, activities, and processes. Aristotle establishes that the excellence of these capacities, activities, or processes of anything that has a function is the best state of the thing. But the function is better than the state since the function is the end, and the end is the best since everything else is chosen for its sake. Next, Aristotle distinguishes function into two types. One of these is where the function is distinct from the exercise of the function; e.g., the function of house-building is to have a house, not the building of one, and the function of medicine is to have health, not the curing act. The other function is where the function is the same as its exercise; e.g., the function of sight is seeing, and the function of mathematical sciences is speculation. From this, Aristotle concludes that when a thing's exercise is its function, this exercise is better than the state (even though he does not explain here, this is because the second kind of function is the end, and the end is the best since everything is chosen for its sake). Aristotle then identifies the function of a thing and its excellent functioning (i.e., if it is achieving the end, then it is doing well). He then assumes that the function of the soul is to make something live. Since the function is the same as the excellent functioning, then the excellence of the soul is a good life or the best activity of the best state which is virtue. He concludes "the activity of the virtue of the soul must be the best thing" (1219a34). But since happiness is the best thing, then happiness is the activity of a virtuous soul. Since happiness is also agreed to be something complete, and completeness is better than incompleteness, he concludes that happiness is the "activity of a complete life in accordance with complete virtue" (1219a38).
In this definition of happiness, Aristotle employs sameness and difference to construct arguments. Some distinctions made were those between what is within from what is without the soul; states, capacities and activities; what is choiceworthy as an end vs. what is not; two types of function; and completeness and incompleteness. These distinctions were frequently followed with a choice of one over the other, which choice is sometimes argued for by an appeal to some other topic (e.g., goods within the soul are more choiceworthy because they are chosen as ends) and sometimes asserted without arguments because it is obvious (e.g., the exercise of a function is better than the state). When it comes to similarity or identity, he identifies a certain exercise of a function with the function; the function and excellent functioning of a thing; and finally, happiness with the best thing. Such identities allow him to establish what happiness is, for being happy just is acting well and living well. Aristotle goes on to investigate the soul in the same manner to ascertain what its virtues are.
The topics employed in the construction of arguments are the tools Aristotle uses to define happiness dialectically. Given that these topics are accessible to everyone and they need no explanation, they make up the class of common opinions that are common to all and hence bind everyone together into a community which makes the kind of discourse Aristotle engages in possible, e.g., discoursing about 'what is good or happiness'. But from where did these topics originate? Given that they give us access to reality and the good, we can safely deduce that reality and the good are structured by these topics. Things theoretical and practical are constituted by parts and wholes, the greater and the lesser, the better and the worse etc.. As a result of such objective structures of the real and the good, we naturally have a community with everyone else subjected to these structures. But why then do we not have just one community according to Aristotle? Why are there sub-communities with opinions that are only common to some? Besides, are these topics as common as Aristotle thinks? Perhaps everyone could agree that there are parts and there are wholes, and there are contraries; but does everyone buy into the notion that things within the soul are better than things bodily?, functions are better than states, etc. ?
It seems that even Aristotle realizes that not everyone is sold on the priority of one of the pairs over the other. Such differences in opinions about those topics that are supposedly common to all is due to a lack of education. That is why he considers the opinions of the wise rather than those of children and the many, and he does not try to argue with those who need experience. Despite the fact that a dialectical investigation into happiness starts from common opinions, he does not think that a young person, or a person who is mature in years but not in character, is a qualified student of ethics. He demands that a student of ethics have experience of the actions about which political science argues, and he be not misled by his feelings but be guided by reason (viz. Nicomachean Ethics I.3 1095a3-12). He also demands that the student must have had a good upbringing in order to have the proper origins. An origin takes the form of believing that something is true even though we do not have the reason why it is true (NE I.4 1095b4-13). Again, he maintains the significance of having the right origins as follows:
It seems that we need certain sorts of presuppositions in order to proceed with dialectical investigations. Since dialectic begins with common opinions, we need to have the correct common opinions, i.e., those tied to the way the world and good are, in order to begin investigations. The necessity for such correct opinions holds for both the topics (i.e., the common opinions that are common to all, e.g., one must know that what is permanent is preferable to what is transient) and the common opinions that are common to some (e.g., things correctly/ truly said, rather than anything at all). It turns out that education or a good upbringing, is the solution to recognizing the topics for what they are, and hence in forming the community that is common to all. This is not surprising because this is actually the end of human beings for Aristotle, i.e., to become virtuous both morally and intellectually. Education should also be able to take care of differences in opinions that are only common to some, such as the uneducated who follows his desires and think that pleasure is the highest good. However, another way of being mistaken even if one has the correct upbringing, is, if one considers an issue by using certain topics and not others. E.g., in thinking about happiness, one could arrive at pleasure as the best candidate if one does not take into account the topics of completeness and self-sufficiency. Such errors could be removed by ensuring that one uses all the relevant topics for his investigations.
In conclusion, studying ethics for Aristotle, relies on two types of community. The basic community consists in opinions that are common to all. These opinions turn out to be the hundreds of topics that are necessary for dialectical reasoning. He also uses sub-communities of common opinions that are common to some in dialectic. These stem from good upbringing which gives one true views which are not yet clearly expressed for one does not know the reason of these views. One gets clear about these true views by employing dialectical reasoning using those topics that are common to all. However, given that even these topics which are supposed to be common to all are not always so, I provide an Aristotelian solution. The solution is one of education and the creation of a community that is common to all by educating them to become aware of the topics that are common to all. This answer is consistent with Aristotle's view because he recognizes that even though certain things are by nature, interferences could prevent our reaching our end (Physics 199b15-18). Education is just a way of removing such interferences. This is consistent with Aristotle's view that the intellectual virtues are the highest good or end for human beings, which end takes teaching and habituation to attain. So ethics for Aristotle is dependent on community (which makes possible dialectical reasoning), and community is in turn dependent on education.
NOTES(1) By "reasoning" Aristotle means "an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them" (100a25-27) (2) Both G. E. L. Owen in his "Titenai ta phainomena" and T. Irwin in his Aristotle's First Principles, hold that dialectic, unlike demonstration, is not intrinsically connected to reality or observable facts. This raises the problem of ever discovering any objective truth or reality with this method. (3) A genus is another predicable which contributes to our understanding of something. By predicating "animal" of man and ox, we are arguing that they are in the same genus. This proposition contributes to dialectical arguments because to show that "animal" is "the genus of the one but not of the other, we shall have argued that these things are not in the same genus;" (102b1-3) and come to know what each is.
(4) Finally, Aristotle defines an "accident" as "something which may possibly either belong or not belong to any one and the self-same thing, as (e.g.) the 'sitting posture' (102b4-7). An accidental predicate contributes to dialectic because the recognition that a predicate is not necessary allows one to see the falsity in trying to make a universal proposition from this predication and so help us know what something is.(5) His examples here attest to the fact that if a term has several meanings, it is mostly due to its application to various realities, e.g., 'to have sense' has more than one meaning when applied to body and soul respectively (106b21-25). Further, 'clear' and 'obscure' mean differently when applied to sound and colour (106a24-28). (6) Viz. Topics I.7 where Aristotle discussed the various senses of 'sameness' which senses correspond to the structure of being, i.e., being that is categorized by predicating of it its genus and species etc (cf. VI.4, VI.7,146a3- 13, 21-33, VI.13-14, 150a15-22, VII.1, 151b28-152b35). (7) Eleonore Stump, for instance, sees a topic in the Topics as a strategy for arguing so that the Topics is simply "a handbook on how to succeed at playing Socrates." (173) So she claims that teaching one to be good at dialectical disputation is the techn_ that this handbook wants to teach (viz. Boethius's De topicis differentiis, Cornell University Press (1978):p. 159-178). J. D. G. Evans also believes that dialectic and ontology have to be sharply distinguished for Aristotle (viz. Aristotle's Concept of Dialectic, Cambridge University Press, (1977): p.36). Barnes too says that Aristotle's Method of endoxa "has, in the last analysis, very little content." ("Aristotle and the Methods of Ethics" Rev. Int. de Phil. vol. 34 (1981): 510). E. Weil in "The Place of Logic in Aristotle's Thought," surprisingly, also agrees with the Topics' lack of content for he says, "It goes without saying that even topics contains no ultimate criterion of truth. Topics too is purely formal, in the sense that it applies its procedures indiscriminately to any affirmation: truth depends on immediate intuition, either perceptual or intellectual." (94) Again, Weil interprets the place of the Topics in philosophy as "a procedure for discovering the problemsnot the solutionswhich present themselves to the philosopher in the course of his daily life." (93) The reason I find such remarks surprising for Weil is that he seems to recognize the value of the Topics for getting at truth, or extracting truth from common opinions (viz. 97, 99, 103, 107). Most insightful is his suggestion that one ought to study the relations between topics and ontology. He says, "Now it is clear that topics and ontology are simply two aspects of one reality: Aristotle says as much himself in one remarkable chapter (Top. IX 9, 170a20ff); and this is corroborated by the part played in both disciplines by such fundamental notions as substance, accident, property, genus, and definition." (108) (Articles on Aristotle, vol. 1 eds., Barnes, Schofield and Sorabji. Duckworth (1975): 88-112) (8) The fact that Aristotle is concerned to provide both constructive and destructive arguments shows that J. D. G. Evans is mistaken when he claims that dialectic is different from philosophy because whereas philosophy is scientific, dialectic is tentative. Dialectic is tentative for Evans because he says that "dialectic can demolish claims to knowledge but positively it is unable itself to produce knowledge." (12) Given that Aristotle is concerned to provide constructive arguments shows that dialectic is indeed helpful towards our discerning truth too and not only falsehood. Aristotle deals explicitly with both constructive and destructive arguments at Book II.3, 4, at the end of 7, and at the beginning of 8 and 9; Book III.6; Book IV.1-6; Book V.2-9; Book VI.2-13; Book VII.1-5; just to name a few cases. (9) Evans notices that the concepts of the same and other, like and unlike, contrariety, priority and posteriority which are mentioned in the Metaphysics (995b21-2) are "prominent" in the Topics. For instance, he says, "Questions about whether two things are the same or other are said to fall under the same heading as questions about definition and are treated in Top. H1-2; and in Top. A7 we are given an analysis of the senses of 'same'. The notions of similarity and contrariety provide topics in the discussions of accident, genus, property, and definition....Priority and Posteriority play an important part in the discussions of property and definition." (38-39) Nonetheless, Evans claims that "no special emphasis is placed in the Topics on the use of these concepts in dialectic." (39) The discussion of these topics from Book III and the topic of sameness and difference already discussed, should show how all pervasive the use of these notions is in Aristotle's dialectic as exhibited in his ethics. (10) E.g., being naturally healthy is superior to achieving health through an operationwhich is good only for an individual who needs the surgery. (11) Viz. "We must try, by argument, to reach a convincing conclusion on all these questions, using, as testimony and by way of example, what appears to be the case. For it would be best if everyone should turn out to agree with what we are going to say; if not that, that they should agree in a way and will agree after a change of mind; for each man has something of his own to contribute to the finding of the truth, and it is from such [starting points] that we must demonstrate: beginning with things that are correctly said, but not clearly, as we proceed we shall come to express them clearly, with what is more perspicuous at each stage superseding what is customarily expressed in a confused fashion." (1216b26-34 cf. 1217a18-20, 1220a15-18). (12) Cf. "Generally accepted opinions, on the other hand, are those which commend themselves to all . . ." (100b22).