Nicomachean Ethics Book VI


These are the remains of the bouleuterion, the place where the Council deliberated, in the city of Priene in Asia Minor. This photograph comes from the Perseus web site.
All page references here are to Nicomachean Ethics, translated and with an introduction and notes by Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall/ Library of Liberal Arts, 1999).

In Book VI Aristotle discusses "intellectual excellence/virtue," arete of the dianoia. 'Dianoia' basically means 'thought,' and is used here primarily in the sense of thought as a faculty or ability of the soul. This faculty or ability can be cultivated to a level of excellence, just as our other abilities can: having understanding, say, would be excellence of our ability to understand.

A. Why discuss "intellectual excellence" in a work on ethics?

There are at least 3 reasons:

1. The Nicomachean Ethics is framed as a discussion of human good, and Aristotle had suggested in Book I, Chapters 4 and 7, that eudaimonia, "happiness," seemed to be the ultimate good for humans. And he had further hypothesized that eudaimonia is "activity of soul in accordance with arete, or accordance with the best and most completearete" (Book I, Ch. 7, 1098a10-15). So he must look at all the aretai, both moral and intellectual, in order to determine what they are, what they prescribe, and which if any would be the "best" or "most complete."

2. At least some intellectual excellences will be important in the realm of moral excellence.

a. Aristotle has also hypothesized that arete is "a characteristic involving choice, and consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean determined by reasoning, such as a person of practical wisdom (phronesis) would use to determine it" (Book II, Ch. 6, 1106b35). Practical wisdom, phronesis, is one of the intellectual excellences, aretai of dianoia. Therefore even moral areterequires some degree of (or just some attention to) practical wisdom.

b. As Aristotle conceives of "theoretical wisdom," sophia, another of the intellectual aretai, it is not concerned with things that are immediately useful, and it is not pursued simply for practical applications. Not all theoretical wisdom even has practical applications (Book VI, Chapters 7 and 12). However, some theoretical wisdom may be helpful on a practical level. For example, some formulas in higher mathematics had no practical application when they were discovered, but we have now found ways to use them on a practical level.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, Aristotle says that deliberation (boulesis), the procedure of making reasoned choices, concerns things that can be other than they are - things or situations that we could change with our actions (Book VI, Ch. 1; Book III, Ch. 3). Theoretical wisdom, he says, concerns "unchanging realities" (Book VI, Ch. 12, and elsewhere). It seems to me that it would be very helpful to know which things and aspects of the universe are changeable, and of these, which are changeable through our action. (For example, can people's characteristics change; can someone whom you think is inconsiderate become what you would call considerate? If so, under what circumstances can this happen? Will the change be fundamental or only superficial? Can we do anything to cause the person to change?) In other words, if we are to be able to deliberate well, it would be good to know exactly what we can deliberate about (what things can really change, through our action) and what we can't deliberate about. Otherwise we might try to deliberate about things we can't change, and then choose to do things that are at best futile and at worst disastrous(1). It would seem then that theoretical wisdom would show us fundamental unchangeable principles that we would do well to know before beginning deliberation on some things.

3. Activity of mind or intelligence (nous), and the pursuit and possession of theoretical wisdom (sophia) will be important for eudaimonia as it is characterized in Book X.

B. Some notes on terminology

The translation may make it look as if "practical wisdom" and "theoretical wisdom" are two species of one thing, "wisdom." A native speaker of ancient Greek would not make this assumption. "Practical wisdom" is phronesis; "theoretical wisdom" is sophia. The words are not related. To make matters more confusing, 'sophia' is often translated simply as 'wisdom.' This is not to say that phronesis and sophia have nothing in common, but only that the Greeks did notconceive them as being two forms of one thing, or as being the same sort of quality with two different jobs, as the English may make it look.

Similarly, there is no etymological connection between "theoretical wisdom" (sophia) and "contemplation"/ "theoretical knowledge" (theoria). There will be some factual connection between them, but the connection is not definitional.

C. Book VI discusses "intellectual" arete both as something to be cultivated in its own right, and as something that can (especially in the case of the intellectual arete that is practical wisdom) have a connection to moral arete.

As something that involves reasoning, intellectual aretai are relevant to the question of what if anything the ergon (function, work) of a human is: recall that in Book I, Aristotle had said that ifthe human as a whole has an ergon, that would seem to be or depend on the use of reasoning. That is, one purpose of this book of the Ethics may be to bring out points that develop, support, or undermine the hypothesis about reasoning and the ergon of the human.

A key passage for trying to understand Book VI is this: "truth (aletheia) is the function (ergon) of both intellectual parts of the soul [i.e., mind/intelligence/intellect (nous) and desire (orexis)]. Therefore those characteristics which permit each part to hold truth most will be the aretai of the two parts." (1139b10; Book VI, Chapter 2)

1. Please note that Aristotle does not say that truth is the ergon of the whole soul, or of the whole person. He leaves plenty of room for non-truth too.

2. The word translated as 'truth' is 'aletheia,' and the range of meanings of this word is not the same as the range of meanings of 'truth.' Some aspects of the meanings, uses, and connotations of 'aletheia' still elude scholars, but certain things can be said with some assurance. The literal meaning of 'aletheia' is something like 'the opposite of oblivion,' or 'not being concealed, forgotten, or overlooked.' In general the sense of 'aletheia' is much wider than that of 'truth'; 'aletheia' can mean 'truth,' 'reality,' 'realness,' 'the real,' 'genuineness,' and the like. Thus Aristotle is talking about mind and desire grasping or addressing reality or the genuine. Today we still say that one aspect of "having a good mind" is "having a good grasp of reality" and that another aspect is "being able to tell true from false"; this would seem to be the sort of thing Aristotle is talking about.

But what about the case of desire? There too I think we still give some importance to attentiveness to reality and the genuine. That is, we sometimes complain that someone has "unrealistic desires": the person wants (and tries to get) things that are impossible or damaging to obtain; or he/she believes that something he/she desires is beneficial when it is not; or he/she has an "unrealistic picture of the world" and seems to misunderstand what is going on, and his/her desires respond to that misunderstanding. For example, suppose that your family has a longstanding desire for you to become a doctor. They want this, they say, because if you are a doctor you (and by extension they) will have money and prestige. But suppose further that you do not want to become a doctor, that you feel you would not make a good doctor, that medical school would be a huge financial burden, that you have in mind another career that would enable you to earn an amount of money and prestige you would be comfortable with, and that anyway you realize (with Aristotle) that prestige is a fickle and often dangerously unjustified thing. You would say that your family's desire is "unrealistic" and potentially unhealthy; it does not make for a happy family or a well-balanced society.

Put another way, consider Aristotle's earlier statement that "...if the choice is to be good, the reasoning must be true and the desire correct (orthe); that is, reasoning must affirm what desire pursues" (1139a25). Aristotle is saying here that a good choice involves valid reasoning and right or appropriate desire. Recall that arete was supposed to involve choosing the right thing at the right time etc.; this meant desiring some appropriate end and deliberating accurately about how to attain it. "Right desire" would seem to mean desire for the right thing, the thing that would really (truly, genuinely) be beneficial or appropriate (whatever that would involve). Making a good choice would then mean reasoning, deliberating, in a valid manner about how to attain one's goal - that is, not making mistakes in reasoning, not accepting false assumptions or jumping to conclusions. Making a good choice might also mean reasoning well about which of one's goals to pursue in a particular situation, and about which things really fulfill one's aims.

But what is the point here? I think that Aristotle wants us to think about what kind of view of the universe is required in order for ethics and community to be possible. In particular, he is hinting that in order for ethics and community to be possible we must accept (at least provisionally) that the universe works in a particular way, that there are regularities and principles that hold so that we can determine what the consequence of an action is likely to be. In order to live together we must all accept on some level that there is a way that the universe is, and that we can communicate about this to one another. In addition, it seems that in order to have a community we must all share some rudimentary values or priorities (or at least have as a value respect for others' values and priorities), and that we must accept these as real things about which we can communicate.

As for why we would want a community, that is part of the topic of Book X. But one thing can be said here: without a community, with its division of labor, rule of law, mutual protection, and so on, it's unlikely that anyone will get the chance to cultivate or to seek theoretical wisdom, or any significant amount of practical wisdom. Only with the understanding gained from these "wisdoms" (should we ever attain them), can we truly know what is "good" or what "good" is. In the second chapter of the first Book of the Metaphysics, Aristotle includes as a crucial aspect of sophia an understanding of "that for the sake of which things must be done," an understanding of "the highest good in all of nature."

D. From here (Nicomachean Ethics Book VI, Ch. 3) Aristotle goes on to discuss that by which the soul expresses or attains truth.

"Let us grant," A. says, that there are 5 such parts or aspects or faculties in the soul: "art" (techne, skill), "science" (episteme, demonstrable knowledge), practical wisdom (phronesis), theoretical wisdom (sophia), and intelligence (nous). (Please note that Aristotle is not claiming to have proof that there are exactly 5 of these things, that any of the 5 do what we say they do, or that any of them assure us of gaining truth.) The point of this discussion seems to be to determine the relationships among the 5, and to determine what if anything each has to do with moral areteand with living well and doing well.

1. Episteme, "science" or "scientific knowledge". Please note that despite the translation, episteme is not quite the same as what we usually mean today by 'science.' First of all, epistemecould involve knowledge of other fields beyond what modern sciences study. Second, modern science may well seek the kind of knowledge that is called 'episteme,' but it has not necessarily attained this knowledge.

"We are all convinced," says Aristotle, "that what we know through epistemecannot be otherwise than it is" (1139b20; Book VI, Ch. 3). Now, he has just noted in the previous paragraph that we are sometimes convinced of false things. What then is episteme supposed to be, and what is Aristotle saying about it?

Episteme is a kind of knowledge that is demonstrable (1139b30). That is, it can be taught by demonstration. By 'demonstration' Aristotle does not mean visual demonstration, but rather argumentation, "showing" in the sense of "showing how you arrived at your conclusion," "showing by valid reasoning." Episteme would involve showing that your claims are true, based on valid reasoning from starting points that seem to be true. It involves recognizing starting points that seem to be true (though not necessarily understanding these starting points very well, or knowing that they are or must be true), and then being able to show or prove things using these starting points and careful reasoning.

Knowledge of mathematical theorems, based on proofs, is an example of episteme. From basic starting points (axioms and definitions) such as "A line is the shortest distance between two points," "A circle is the set of all points equidistant from a given point," and "The sum of the measures of two colinear angles is equal to the sum of two right angles" we can derive and prove such theorems as "Vertical angles are congruent," "In a triangle where two sides are congruent, the angles opposite those sides will be congruent to one another," "A radius perpendicular to a chord bisects the chord and its corresponding arc." The last three statements are of theorems; they are true as long as the axioms and definitions on which they are based are also true (for example, in some non-Euclidean geometries, they will not all be true). Thus as Aristotle says, if we claim to have episteme of something (say, of one of these theorems), we believe that we know something that must be true, that speaks of some eternal and necessary aspect of the universe (say, that in Euclidean geometrical space at least, if two lines are not parallel they will cross in such a way that vertical angles are congruent).

On the other hand, if what we took as starting points turned out not to be true things, the things we had demonstrated based on those starting points might not be true, and the conclusions we had gained from those demonstrations would not really be episteme.

What then does episteme have to do with arete? First, cultivating episteme or trying to gain real episteme would seem to be part of our attempts to gain theoretical wisdom (1141b1-5; Ch. 7), and hence would be part of our attempts to develop intellectual arete. Second, it could provide information that would be useful in our deliberations, and so contribute indirectly to moral arete. Third, applied episteme, as is often found in technai (arts, skills) also contributes information that can be useful in deliberation, and that helps us maintain life and produce things we value.

2. Techne, "art" or "applied science" or "skill" (Chapter 4) Aristotle calls techne a "trained ability of rationally producing," i.e., the ability to produce something reliably under a variety of conditions, on the basis of some reasoning. This involves having knowledge, or having what seems to be knowledge (awareness) of whatever principles and patterns one relies on. For example, carpentry is a techne that relies on some geometrical principles to produce its results reliably. Farming is a techne that relies on some astronomical principles. Carpentry and farming apply the axioms and theorems of geometry and astronomy, and thus involve some awareness or considered opinion as to how to apply these axioms and theorems, and what degree of precision to expect.

Some degree of episteme therefore seems to be involved in techne, and elsewhere (e.g. Metaphysics A1) Aristotle seems to treat them as overlapping. After all, in order to "produce things under the guidance of true reason" as techne is supposed to do, one must have reference to some stable principles that are supposed to govern the results, and one must have some way of showing why these principles are to be relied on. In farming, for example, the person who has techne will be able to refer to an account of seasonal changes that is tied to claims about patterns in the observed movements of stars and planets. The skilled farmer will also be able to say something about the relationships between properties of soil, availability of light, and source and availability of water, on the one hand, and the growth of certain plants on the other.

Aristotle points out that techne by itself is not a guide to action (p.152); for example, knowing how to grow a particular crop does not tell you whether to grow that crop. However, techne will be valuable for moral arete in that once you have determined what should be accomplished, it can provide information about effective means for accomplishing what you have decided on (if that involves producing something). Aristotle notes this indirectly in Book VII: In Chapter 3 of that book, he says that what is called akrasia, "moral weakness" or "lack of self-restraint," often takes the form of failure to realize the true nature of the particular case that you are dealing with. That is, in these cases the person who is said (rightly or wrongly) to exhibit akrasia fails to do the right thing even though he or she appears to be aware of what the right thing is. One form of "failing to do the right thing while being aware of the right thing" would be knowing in generalwhat one is supposed to do - perhaps even setting out to do it - but then failing to identify the specific thing that one is supposed to do in a specific case. Say you are working in an airport and are told to inspect bags to see whether anyone is transporting uncooked meats (e.g. certain kinds of salami). Suppose that you do not realize that prosciutto ham is not a cooked product. You will then make the mistake of letting prosciutto pass when it should be confiscated. A knowledge of the techne of cooking would help you avoid the mistake.

3. Phronesis, "practical wisdom". The discussion of practical wisdom begins in Ch. 5, and is taken up from several different angles in Chs. 7-13. Aristotle suggests that we "approach the subject of practical wisdom by studying the persons to whom we attribute it," which may imply that he is not assuming that he himself has practical wisdom, that he is not assuming that he knows what it is, and that he is not assuming that those who are said to have practical wisdom really have it (if it exists). He observes a number of things about those who are said to have practical wisdom, and about the features and behaviors that these people exhibit (the features and behaviors that seem to be what inspire others to attribute practical wisdom to these people):

-- A person who is said to have practical wisdom is one who is (or is said to be) able to deliberate well (1140a25, 1141b10).

-- Practical wisdom cannot be a pure science (an episteme), in that pure sciences deal with things that cannot be otherwise than they are, but deliberation deals precisely with things that can be a variety of different ways. Deliberation involves reasoning about which way to act.

-- Practical reason then seems to be able to be described as a "truthful (i.e. truth-holding) characteristic of acting rationally in matters good and bad for humans" (1140b5). (Recall that 'rationally' means 'with reason.') Thus practical reason seems to involve being able to determine what is really (in truth) good for oneself and for humans generally or as a whole; assessing this honestly; and acting according to reason, based on this recognition of what is good and what is bad.

-- Practical wisdom is itself not an art (a techne), but an excellence (arete). Aside from the fact that arts are supposed to have products and practical wisdom is not, there is also the difference that arts can be practiced well or badly, with excellence or without. Practical wisdom cannot be practiced badly. If something looks like practical wisdom but is practiced badly (has consistently bad results, for example), it isn't practical wisdom at all. However if an art is practiced badly (up to a point) it could still be an art: if you are a maker of ceramic pots and the pots you make are shoddy, you're not practicing pottery well, but you're practicing pottery. (If your pots never hold water and you don't know why, you may have slipped beyond "practicing pottery badly" to "not really practicing pottery at all," but there is quite a range between making fine sturdy pots and making barely serviceable pots, and this whole range would count as "practicing pottery.")

Practical wisdom will be the excellence of the "part" of the soul that forms opinions or beliefs.

-- Practical wisdom involves being able to deliberate well, and deliberating well means being able to aim at and hit the best thing attainable to us by action (Ch. 7: 1141b10). - Why would deliberating well mean not only being able to aim at the best thing, but also being able to hit the best thing? Isn't deliberation just a thought process? Possibly what Aristotle has in mind is that deliberating well should include not only figuring out what result to seek, but also figuring out how to obtain that result effectively and without inappropriate costs or consequences. This suggestion is supported by his claim in the next paragraph that practical wisdom deals with both universal or general principles and particulars of everyday situations. Further support appears in Ch. 9, 1142b30 (p.163): "excellence in deliberation will be correctness in assessing what is conducive to the end [i.e. the goal], concerning which practical wisdom gives a true conviction."

Deliberating well is not merely correct (i.e. accurate) reasoning about how to attain a goal; it is correct reasoning about how to attain a good goal (1142b20; p. 163). It is also not incorrect (i.e. inaccurate or false) reasoning about how to attain a good goal, even if coincidentally one attained the good goal through the faulty reasoning.

-- Practical wisdom differs from understanding (sunesis) of what one ought to do, in that understanding judges (distinguishes) what one ought to do, but practical wisdom commands one to do it. This is important: somehow, practical wisdom not only tells what to do but makes you do it.

-- Not only is practical wisdom the excellence of one "part" of the soul, but it is valued for other reasons as well. "Moral excellence makes us aim at the right target; practical wisdom makes us use the right means [toward that target]" (Ch.12, 1144a10, p. 169). This helps us distinguish practical wisdom from mere "cleverness" and from the practice of doing what seem to be good things for the wrong reasons, whatever those are (pp. 169-170): It is possible to do things that are considered just or courageous or otherwise virtuous, but to do them for reasons that do not make one a virtuous (morally excellent) person. For example, you might do the things that courageous people do, at the same times as the courageous people do them, but for the reason that you are trying to impress people or get promoted to a position where you will be able to embezzle money and supplies. How then do we distinguish this kind of behavior, and the way of living and the character that go with it, from the ways of people who we say really have arete? Is there really a difference? Aristotle says that "it seems possible for someone to be of such a character that he/she performs each act in such a way as to make him/her a good person - I mean that his/her acts are due to choice and are performed for the sake of the acts themselves." (In other words, this sort of person thinks that the acts are good in and of themselves.) And this person, in order to be morally excellent, would also have to be making the right choices of action and taking the right steps (determining these is the job of practical wisdom). The person who is merely "clever" is one who can figure out how to attain a goal effectively and with the consequences he/she deems appropriate; but this person does not necessarily know what the best goal is.

Why does Aristotle say that "it seems possible" that a person could be of such a character as to do the right things for the right reasons? That is, why does he not say that people like this exist (or don't)? Perhaps he gives the clue on p. 170: he refers to "the highest good...whatever it may be" - as if he is not claiming that he knows it, or that he knows anyone who definitely knows it. Then why mention the possibility at all? Again, without this the possibility of an ethics grounded on knowledge or real good (as opposed to opinion and whim) would fall. We do not yet know whether the possibility is realized.

-- "Virtue in the full sense cannot be attained without practical wisdom" (Ch. 13, p. 171). This is because arete was supposed to be guided by right reason (as opposed to being guided by luck, chance, faulty reasoning, guesswork, whim, prejudice, etc.), and right reason is determined by practical wisdom.

4. Intelligence (nous). This is discussed mainly in Ch. 6, but there are important additions in Ch. 11.

The word 'nous' can mean 'intelligence,' but also 'awareness,' 'intention,' 'intellect,' and 'mind.' These other meanings may be helpful in trying to understand Aristotle's points here.

Nous is supposed to be that by means of which we grasp fundamental necessary true principles (reasons or sources) concerning the whole of what is. (Are there any such principles? Aristotle does not say he knows of any; but there had better be some if any truth or knowledge is to be possible. Why? - Because any true statement must be either true in and of itself, as an axiom is supposed to be; or else deduced from statements that are true in and of themselves. Any thing we would call real must be either necessarily or as a contingent result of necessary things, or we would have no justification for saying that it existed.) These fundamental principles would concern how things are and why they are, and would include the ultimate nature of good, if good exists.

Why is nous supposed to be the "part" of the soul that deals with these? Part of the reason seems to be that Aristotle has eliminated the other parts of the soul as candidates, given their other functions (p. 155). Another aspect of the reason is that since fundamental principles don't admit of proof or demonstration, immediate apprehension of some kind would seem to be our access to them. This is not a very strong argument, but since we don't have any evidence to indicate that we actually know any fundamental principles of the nature of what is, it is not clear that we can make any more precise determination about what if anything "in" us could apprehend these principles.

Nous also is what grasps particular facts of individual situations (p. 166); think of nous as 'awareness' or 'mind' and this may seem clearer. What this function has in common with the grasping of fundamental principles is that both are graspings or awarenesses, not instances of reasoning or choosing.

5. Theoretical wisdom (sophia). Aristotle notes in Ch. 7 that people use the term 'sophia' in several ways. It can be used in a partial or limited way, as when people say that one who is an excellent craftsman is "wise." But when the term is used in a general sense, whenpeople say that someone is wise in general, something more is meant.(2) In this sense of being wise in general, wisdom involves "knowing what follows from fundamental principles as well as having true knowledge of the fundamental principles themselves." That is, wisdom involves having both episteme and nous, and being able to unite what the two of them give you.

Sophia does not have any necessary connection with action: it can be used as a basis for action, or it may have no practical application (or none now, though some applications may be found in future). However, as an excellence of thought, it has value; and contemplation of the knowledge it gives us (if we have it) would be pleasant in itself (Book X).

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Nicomachean Ethics Book VI by Rose Cherubin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


1. For example, suppose that we did not know how to determine the force generated by a flowing river, and we did not know the principles of force that would enable us to calculate whether our materials and technology would enable us to divert the river. Suppose also that our materials and technology were not sufficient to the task of diverting the river, only we could not tell that. Then we might deliberate over whether or how to divert the river, and if we decided to do it, we might cause a flood or rockslide.

2. Aristotle is then NOT saying that excellent craftspeople must have sophiain the general sense; in this he agrees with Socrates' findings in the Apology. What Aristotle says here also agrees with his own findings in the Metaphysics (Book A, Ch. 1-2): Whatever wisdom is, it would seem to involve understanding "first causes and principles," fundamental reasons and sources for things; and therefore it would not be equivalent to any of the crafts.