Phronimos, We Hardly Knew Ye

On Chris Panza’s blog a week or so ago, Aristotle’s ethics came up during a discussion on Confucius and possible distinctions within the concept of ren or that of the junzi (check it out).  This got me to thinking about Aristotle and a problem I took him to solve in the Nicomachean Ethics by way of his distinction between natural virtue and full virtue—namely, the problem of how a person with a particular “virtue” (I use the scare quotes here to mark the ambiguity of the term ‘virtue’ here) could ever perform a non-virtuous action, or one not in keeping with that virtue, in unguarded moments, etc.  Here’s what I say about Aristotle in a comment to the post:
He considers cases in which one has a disposition to act a certain way, but external forces keep one from performing the acts one intends to, or other considerations (for example, one act is even more virtuous than another) get in the way.

If I remember correctly, he goes so far as to say that if a person is thwarted in this way from performing virtuous action very often, then the disposition that person has toward this action does not count as a virtue. He is able to maintain this (although it’s not explicit, but has to be interpreted) due to his distinction between “natural virtue” and “full virtue”. 
So, after looking back through the NE after my move back to Connecticut, I noticed that Aristotle never actually explicitly says anything that exciting, but I think we can construct this interpretation of what Aristotle does say in various passages in the NE.  I’d simply been reading Aristotle this way so long that I thought he said it outright.  Anyway, here’s some argument:
The key passage for the natural virtue/full virtue distinction is NE 1144b1-1145a6.  Here he explains that the difference between natural virtue and full virtue is phronesis, possession of which unifies the virtues and makes a natural disposition a full virtue.  The phronimos of necessity possesses all the virtues together.  One might possess some natural virtues without others, however.  These natural virtues seem from this passage to simply be the same thing as the full virtues without the unity to other virtues, without rationality leading them, or without requiring successful virtuous acts connected with the naturally virtuous disposition one has “of nature” (something one’s born with, perhaps).  
If we then consider what Aristotle says about external goods and their relation to eudaimonia, in Book  I in NE 1098b32-1099a5 and NE 1099a32-b8, we can begin to see how the connection is made.  It’s worth the space here to quote one of the above passages fully (Ross/Urmson translation):
(NE 1099a32-b8) “…it [happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment.  In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from blessednes, as good birth, satisfactory children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is hardly happy, and perhaps a man would be still less so if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death.  As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with excellence.”
Keeping this in mind, let’s return to virtue.  For the cultivation of the virtues, it is necessary to practice virtuous acts, as Aristotle explains at NE 1103a26-b2:
“…of all the things that come to us by nature we first aquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity […] but excellences we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
Thus, one might have “natural virtue” in the sense of having a disposition toward generosity, etc., but if they are unable (for whatever reason) to practice generous acts, they cannot gain the full virtue of generosity.  Aristotle can sensibly maintain this by employing the distinction between natural virtue and full virtue, although he doesn’t mention this distinction until much later in the NE.  One may not have a particular virtue (although one does have a disposition toward it) simply because one does not have the opportunity to practice acts connected with the disposition—for example, a completely poor person may have a disposition toward generosity, but without the opportunity to transform this disposition (a mere natural virtue) into a full virtue through practice (which seems that it must be connected to the habituation to reasons), the poor person cannot be generous in the full-blown sense.  The opportunity spoken of here is also related to the need for external goods mentioned above in NE 1098b32-1099a5 and NE 1099a32-b8.  That doesn’t mean this poor person has nothing, though—they have a natural virtue (I can see Aristotle saying “and this is better than nothing…I guess…”).  Part of the process by which this natural virtue can become a full virtue, however, will have to do with gaining phronesis, and thus all the other virtues, without which one cannot be fully virtuous.
It seems to me Aristotle must have thought that there are plenty of people around who have various natural virtues, but that no one exists or probably had ever existed who was a phronimos.  In this way, we can liken the phronimos to Confucius’ 聖人 sheng ren (“sage”).  They are both ideals almost unattainable for real people.  But, although Confucius gives us the more attainable goal of becoming junzi, Aristotle seems only to offer the phronimos, giving us the pinnacle but nothing less.  Perhaps the idea here was that if we aim for the highest ideal, we’ll get farther than if we aim for something lower, whereas Confucius took a more practical approach.
Anyway, this is the idea—any thoughts on this interpretation? Is this taking the natural virtue/full virtue distinction to do more work than Aristotle intended it to do? (this is one possible worry)

11 responses to “Phronimos, We Hardly Knew Ye

  1. Hi Alexus,

    Aristotle says in Book I that his account of ethics will be in broad strokes, full of simplifications, and should be taken as such. It seems to me that either you’re reading way too much precision into Aristotle or I’m reading way too much precision into you.

    Are you thinking that Aristotle thinks phronesis is something one has either all of or none of? Are you thinking that he thinks the ability to practice generous actions is something one has either all of or none of?

    I think Aristotle must have thought someone can be way above average when it comes to virtue without being perfect. For one thing, the Aristotelian virtues aren’t like the Ten Commandments: it’s easy to fall subtly short of perfect temperance, but hard to fall subtly short of perfect murderlessness (which is why Mt 5:21f is innovative; cf. Mt. 21:18-21, 23:17,33).

    Also, even though I fall far short of perfection on all counts, still it seems to me that much of the meagre virtue I have comes not just from natural endowment, but also partly from practice. Is there any reason to suspect that Aristotle might disagree with me on this?

    There’s a wonderful short film on how the poor fall short of eudaimonia (having only poor semblances thereof), called “Street of Crocodiles.” I don’t know how to get it. It’s by the brothers Quay.

  2. Aristotle says that rich people can be not only generous but munificent. Munificence isn’t more generosity, it’s a somewhat analogous virtue for people who have more wealth. Thus it seems to me he might acknowledge a lesser somewhat analogous virtue for the poor.

  3. Alexus McLeod

    Hi Bill-

    The reason I talk in ways that make it seem like the phronimos has perfect virtue is because of Aristotle’s unity of the virtues thesis–according to NE1144b32-1145a6, the person with phronesis has ALL the virtues. He is explicit in saying that that one cannot possess phronesis without possessing all of the virtues together, which seems pretty demanding. So, for example, I would not count as a phronimos and thus would not be truly virtuous if I brave, kind, etc., but was not particularly patient (or some other relatively small virtue, say). And, by NE1144b30-32, if one does not have phronesis, the virtues one has (kindness, etc.) cannot be considered virtues in the full sense, but only natural virtues, to the extent they exist at all. Thus, in order for my kindness to be a full virtue, rather than a natural virtue, I have to have phronesis, which commits me to having all the other virtues, including patience and whatever other virtues there are. Part of the difficulty here is that Aristotle doesn’t explain whether there can be levels of possession of phronesis–though I tend to think not, because this would problematize the unity of virtues thesis he uses phronesis to support. If there could be varying levels to which one possesses phronesis, it would become necessary to give some indication as to what level of possession makes it the case that one gains the full set of virtues (and an account of the reasons for this). If one has a middling level of phronesis, for example, do they have the full set of virtues, or just some proper subset? Given that Aristotle never makes this distinction for phronesis, what he says about it in section 13 of Book VI seems to suggest it’s an “all or nothing” deal.

    Of course, it could also be, as you suggest, simply because Aristotle didn’t go into as much detail about the topic as one would have liked. It’s hard to see how what he does say in Book VI, though, doesn’t commit him to the “all-or-nothing” view.

    Thanks for the film reference, by the way–that sounds pretty cool, I’ll have to try to get a hold of it (I’m usually pretty good at hunting down obscure movies and stuff).

  4. Hi Alexus, I don’t have my Aristotle with me, and Perseus is being too slow to be helpful, but I have the impression that by “natural virtue” Aristotle means such virtue as we have largely independently of practice/training. In that case the gap between natural virtue and full virtue would seem to be the gap into which many of us fall; but on your reading it seems that Aristotle says nobody is in that range?

  5. I don’t have my book here, and Perseus is too slow to be helpful, but I have the impression that by “natural virtue” Aristotle means virtue people have not by practice/training. In that case one would expect almost all good people to be somewhere in between natural and perfect virtue. But on your reading Aristotle seems to say that nobody is between natural and perfect virtue. That’s why the reading seems unacceptable to me. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you and/or Aristotle.

  6. That’s interesting! I thought the first version simply vanished when I hit the space-bar instead of the “publish your comment” button.

  7. Alexus (and Bill),

    I don’t have the A here either, so I’m just working with what you have here.

    I’m very interested in this question of natural/full virtue, though for me it’s more of an interest in how this plays out (if at all) in Confucius.

    I’m tempted to suggest that it’s plausible that if the distinction can be drawn on these lines, it would more intuitively be drawn on the level of natural virtues being those that lack “fine tuning” by phronesis, whereas lacking the ability to follow through on what a virtue points to due to some external circumstance is something else entirely.

    Partly my thinking here relates to something Bill says up top — I wonder whether the possession of external goods is a matter of degree. Surely poor people can be generous; it is their circumstance (and what they have to give) that sets the boundaries for that virtue in practice, no? I guess part of this might depend on what sets the mark for virtuous behavior. Is it something in the world independent of the agent, or is it dependent on the agent’s prior states? My guess is that A leans on the latter, at least in a few famous places. And it seems that this would pressure your interpretation a bit.

    But of could you might mean something entirely different — that external circumstances can prevent virtue, such as a freak lightening bolt killing a person who was about to courageously save a person from drowning. Would you extend your treatment to such a case, suggesting that for such a person full virtue is out of reach due to the failure to realize what is internal?

    Just some fast unorganized thoughts!

  8. Alexus, you wrote: “If there could be varying levels to which one possesses phronesis, it would become necessary to give some indication as to what level of possession makes it the case that one gains the full set of virtues (and an account of the reasons for this).”

    I don’t see why it would be necessary (especially since it would presumably be prohibitively difficult). I’ve always taken it as understood that his argument about the unity of virtue is at least about perfect virtues and perfect phronesis, and that his implicit point about real cases is that insofar as virtues approximate being perfect, they require phronesis that approximates perfect phronesis, and these approximate phroneses tend more or less to imply the other virtues, with various differences from case to case. I think this is the natural way to take his argument, because it’s unnatural (or uncharitable) to understand a discussion of moral psychology as having mathematical precision.

    Here are three possible views. (A) Aristotle applies the term ‘phronesis’ sometimes to an extreme or perfect state, and sometimes to lesser states that approach it more or less closely. (B) He uses ‘phronesis’ only for a perfect state. I gather your view is (B). Within (B) there are two possibilities. (Ba) Aristotle thinks there are states that approach phronesis, as closely as you like, with powers approaching the powers of phronesis as closely as you like; only he doesn’t call those states “phronesis.” (Bb) Aristotle doesn’t think there are states that approach phronesis. Rather he thinks that people who don’t have (perfect) phronesis don’t have anything approaching it.

    (Bb) seems implausible. But (Ba) is different from (A) only in terminology, not in substance. Would the necessity you speak of in my quote above be any less necessary given reading (Ba) than given reading (A)?

  9. Alexus McLeod

    Sorry to get back to the conversation so late!–I’ve been working on a bunch of other stuff recently.

    Anyway–to your last comment, Bill:

    If I have to choose from any of the options you give, (A), (Ba), or (Bb), I take (Bb). But, I think it’s not as implausible as you claim, given a different picture of a view close to it but not exactly like it. The distinctions you give in ways of understanding what phronesis is can also be thought of in terms of viewing phronesis as a “degree concept” or as a “threshold concept.” The degree reading would be something like your (A) and (Ba)–that there can be varying levels of phronesis, with “perfect phronesis” at the top (the terminology of course is not important here, as you mention-we might reserve the term ‘phronesis’ itself for the highest degree, but the lower degrees could be functionally similar to phronesis and simply given different names).

    Your option (Bb) is close to the reading of phronesis as a “threshold concept”, but misses something crucial about such concepts. For example, if we think of some property like “the winner of game x”–this is clearly threshold. Depending on the rules of game x, there are certain conditions one must meet to be the winner of the game (in some instance of playing the game). Being the winner thus does not admit of degrees–either meets those conditions and wins the game or does not and loses it. There is no distinction between the one who minimally meets the conditions and one who goes beyond them insofar as the property of “the winner of game x”. We might say that one of them is “barely the winner” whereas the other is a “superior winner”, but they are both winners of game x. (Indeed, the 2004 New England Patriots were probably a much better football team than the 1988 San Francisco 49ers but neither team can be ahead of the other qua “Super Bowl champion”–this does not admit of degrees.)

    At the same time, just because being winner of game x is threshold, this does not mean that there is no difference between people or teams who do not meet the required conditions for winning game x. One can meet one condition for winning the game and thus fail, and another can meet most conditions for winning the game and thus fail–thus one can be closer to having won or closer to winning than another. Another football example–the 1990 Buffalo Bills were much closer to winning the Super Bowl (they lost by a last minute field goal) than were the 1987 Denver Broncos (who got manhandled by the Redskins 42-10). Yet neither team became Super Bowl champions.

    Shifting this to the example of phronesis–if we think of phronesis as a threshold property, then what you say in option (Bb) would not be the case: “he thinks that people who don’t have (perfect) phronesis don’t have anything approaching it.” On the contrary, one would be able to approach phronesis to a variety of levels–Jim might be closer to phronesis than Alan–but still neither has phronesis. So the fact that phronesis is a threshold concept (which makes it “all or nothing” in a certain sense) does not rule out the possibility of growth or approach. It also does not make Aristotle’s ethics practically unworkable if we read phronesis as a threshold property. We still have an objective measure by which to appraise different people, on their proximity to phronesis–just like we can appraise football teams in terms of how close they are to winning a Super Bowl: some teams, like the 2007 Patriots, were clearly closer to reaching the threshold, for example, than the 2007 Cincinnati Bengals. Thus, your option (Bb), insofar as it resembles the threshold reading of phronesis, is not, I think, as implausible as you claim.

    Now the hard part–did Aristotle actually think of phronesis as a threshold property or one of degree? It seems to me that there’s no knock down argument either way. I read him as holding a threshold view, based on the bits of NE Book 6 I cite above, which is the most he ever says about phronesis in the NE. Because it’s so little to go on, however, it’s unclear whether your reading or my own (or some other one) is Aristotle’s own view (similar problems as with Confucius, of course). Both seem consistent with Aristotle, though. If my view of phronesis committed me to the uncharitable position you suggest, I would agree that it would be untenable to attribute it to Aristotle. But I don’t think it does, based on the rough argument above.

  10. Hi Alex, that’s helpful. The tricky part for me is to understand the difference between the structure of the concept as you lay it out, which I’ll call (Bc), and (Ba) as I described it. I guess the difference has to be that on (Bc), phronesis has powers that differ radically from the powers of the states that approach phronesis as closely as we like (as the winner has the power to take home the prize). Do you have an idea of how that might be a plausible view of the difference between perfect practical wisdom and practical wisdom that is merely way better than people ever have?

    One might imagine answering that question this way: “On (Bc), nearly perfect phronesis might fail to be a perfectly sufficient condition for all the virtues, while perfect prhonesis would be a perfectly sufficient condition.” But there are two versions of that view. (V1) says that the states that approach phronesis approach being sufficient for the other virtues, and there’s no great leap at the threshhold. (V2) says they don’t and there is. Offhand it seems to me that charity strongly prefers (V1). And with (V1) we really have (Ba) after all.

    And there’s also my argument in the duplicated short comments above.

  11. I mean Alexus. I always type ‘Alex’ and usually then correct it. Sorry!!

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