PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 5

 - The Well-Ordered Soul: Happiness and Harmony


Professor Gendler begins with a poll of the class about whether students have elected to take a voluntary no-Internet pledge, and distributes stickers to help students who have made the pledge stick to their resolve. She then moves to the substantive part of the lecture, where she introduces Plato’s analogy between the city-state and the soul and articulates Plato’s response to Glaucon’s challenge: justice is a kind of health–the well-ordered working of each of the parts of the individual—and thus is intrinsically valuable. This theme is explored further via psychological research on the ‘progress principle’ and ‘hedonic treadmill,’ as well as in an introduction to Aristotle’s argument that reflection and reasoning are the function of humanity and thus the highest good.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 5 - The Well-Ordered Soul: Happiness and Harmony

Chapter 1. Internet Poll and Self-regulation [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: OK. So the clicker question that I want to ask you right now is–ah, shoot! This says polling closed. Now polling open. “Did you commit to turning off the Internet completely?”, Press one. “Did you commit to restricting your Internet usage in some way?” That is, you’re keeping the Internet on, but you’re promising not to check Facebook, or play Angry Birds, or go shopping at Zappos, or whatever other indulgent thing you do on the Internet. If that’s your case, press two. “Did you put no restriction on your in-class Internet use, but you’re somebody with a computer?” If so, press three. Or is it kind of not applicable to you, because you’re somebody who uses a pencil and paper in class?

OK. Now it’s supposed to be the case that the timer is counting itself down, but no, I’ve got to prattle for twenty-eight seconds. So here we go. So this is a case–I read through the papers for my section, and my sense there–and I don’t know whether it was a random sample–is that about two-thirds of the students committed to totally turning off the Internet, and about a quarter committed to sometimes restriction, and a very small percentage committed to no restriction on Internet use.

OK. It should be the case in one second that our slide–yes. OK. So 43% of you, 43% of the students in this room, made a pre-commitment in the form of a promise. It became a pre-commitment because you wrote it down. Just thinking it didn’t make a pre-commitment. But you took an action at a time when you felt yourself to be cool and calm and reasonable, and made a decision at that moment that you took to be binding upon yourself in the future. And an additional 16% of you didn’t draw a bright line at the turning off Internet completely, but attempted to put in place some sort of intermediate restriction.

Now my next question for you is whether you have strayed. Twenty seconds. “One. Not even an itty-bitty bit. Not once.” “Two. Just once or twice.” “Three. Um, well, a few times, but I’m trying.” Or “four, yep, I’ve been playing Sparkle HD Lite on my iPad all class long.” And let’s see how the numbers came out. OK. So we should get–that didn’t show up automatically. Aha.

So 56% of you–excellent. 56% of you have not strayed at all. But notice that half of you have found yourselves unable to carry through with a commitment that you made, and that you provided some enforcement for in the sense that you internalized in your conscience the idea that you had made a commitment.

It turns out that for many people, simply making a commitment in their mind is insufficient for them to stay in this “not even an itty-bitty bit” category. For those people, who end up here or here or even here, it turns out that putting some sort of external constraints in place are useful.

So the New York Times had a piece last week about something called Phone Condoms, whose slogan is, “Zip it, lock it, keep it in your pocket.” And the idea is that you take your cell phone, and you put it in this little Ziploc bag, and while you’re driving, you are unable to gain access to it. One of the students in this class–and you’ll have access to this on the slide–e-mailed me a link to a computer program which is basically a computer condom, a “zip it, lock it, keep it in your pocket” for Internet access. It turns off access to the Internet for a given period of time.

But for those of you who feel like you want some sort of external reinforcement, but you’re not prepared to make use of the Internet lockup, I thought I’d provide something which would help you stick to your commitment by making use of two things that we learned about last week. One is that when there are eyes in front of you, you feel the gaze of the world upon you. And the other is that when there’s a kind of social reinforcement by peers, it’s easier to stick with a plan.

So not only because they are left over from my older son’s bar mitzvah, I have for you smiley face stickers, which the TFs will hand out. And if you would like, you are free to put a red or orange sticker on the corner of your computer, if you’re committed to no Internet during class. It’ll be there to remind you and to show your peers. And a green or blue sticker on your computer if you are committed to restricted Internet during class.

To the TFs, there are 720 of these stickers, so we’re not going to run out. You can just hand out–just hand them out, a little piece of them, and people can pass them around, and put them there or not. We’re no worse off. They were sitting on my desk since the bar mitzvah, which was in October, and I thought, here, we can make four points at once in a class.

In fact, we can make five because the question of self-regulation is, in fact, the fundamental question that we are addressing in the context of the material that we read for today.

Chapter 2. Plato’s Response to Glaucon’s Challenge [00:05:57]

So I want to apologize, because today’s lecture really is, in lots of ways, dead guys on Tuesday. I’m going to go through, in some detail, some arguments from Plato, and then in some detail, some arguments from Aristotle. But my hope is that by doing so, I’ll provide you with a framework that will allow you, when you go back to the readings, perhaps in the context of writing your papers, to feel like those texts have become accessible.

So famously, as you recall, Plato had suggested that our soul can be understood as having three parts. That we have a rational part, which he represents sometimes as a human being, sometimes as a charioteer. That we have one called the spirited part, which he represents sometimes as a cooperative horse, sometimes as a lion. And that we have, in addition, an appetitive part, which he represents sometimes as a wild horse, and sometimes as the multiheaded beast.

Plato’s suggestion is that a certain kind of happiness is available to us if we get these parts into line. He writes, “one is just who does not allow the various parts within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is his own, and rules himself, puts himself in order, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes on a musical scale. And from having been many things”– from having been as you are, pulled in two directions, pulled in the direction of keeping the Internet off, and pulled in the direction of checking your Facebook page. Pulled in the direction of going to the library and doing your homework, and pulled in the direction of hanging out in your suite and talking to your suitemate. “From having been many things”–pulled in the direction of what reason tells you to do, and pulled in the direction of what spirit or appetite tells you to do–“you become entirely one, moderate and harmonious.”

So the Platonic ideal of the well-structured soul is one regulated by reason in which spirit and appetite are subjected to reason’s mandates. Now, what I want to give you now is basically a thirty second–well, five minute–overview of the plot of Plato’s Republic in Books, (sort of), II, III, IV and IX. OK?

So the story goes as follows: Plato is trying to tell us what the human soul is like. And in honor of the weather, we’ll represent the human being like this. [image of snowman] And he points out, as I just noted, that the human soul has three parts. It’s got a rational part, it’s got a spirited in part, and it’s got a part that is full of appetite, appetitive. And you can see the human being, the lion, and the multiheaded beast, in Plato’s famous image there.

But in order to understand what is good for the human being, Socrates suggests, at the end of the discussion in Book II, which we read for last class, that the best way to understand what it is that’s good for the tripartite human being is to think about what would be good for a city that is structured in the same way. What societal structures can help us understand things about the internal structures of human beings?

So he proposes the famous city-state analogy, whereby corresponding to the part of the soul that he calls appetite are citizens of the city that he calls workers, or people who do the day-to-day work of the city, and who take their joy and pleasure from the pleasures of the body and of the appetite. There are soldiers, those who defend the city and serve as its defenders in military context, who are motivated by honor. And there are, in addition, philosophers or guardians, those who live the life of the mind. And you’ll notice who gets to end up at the top in this story.

So the idea is that in order to understand the four cardinal Greek virtues in the context of the individual, we will be helped by thinking about where those virtues can be found in the city. And we can then map what it is that we’ve learned from looking at the problem writ large in the context of society. We can map that onto what would be the case in the context of the problem writ small, the individual.

So Plato’s Socrates points out that there are four cardinal virtues, and you know these from your reading. The first of these is wisdom. And the wisdom of the city and of the individual is to be found in its rational part. OK. Those should be–There is courage. And the courage of a city or of an individual is to be found in its spirited parts. They’re dancing. And there are two virtues–the distinction between which is important in some contexts, but not for ours–and those are the virtues of moderation and justice. And the suggestion here is that just as a city is moderate and just when the relations among the people in it are proper, so, too, is an individual moderate or just when the relations among its parts are appropriate and proper. That is, moderation and justice involve a certain kind of harmony among the parts.

So that’s the Platonic picture. And it turns out that this is Plato’s answer–Plato’s answer in the voice of Socrates–to the challenge that Glaucon posed to us at the middle of Book II.

You remember that we were given, at the beginning of Book II, a three-way distinction among goods. We were told that there were things that are valuable intrinsically, in themselves. There are things that are valuable instrumentally, for the goods that they provide beyond themselves. Those are things like money, which have no intrinsic value, but which have instrumental worth. And that there are things that are valuable both intrinsically and instrumentally.

And you recall that Glaucon’s argument, first with the claim that when we talk about justice, we make claims for its benefits in terms of the goods that it provides in reputation. Second in his Ring of Gyges story, where he argued that if we can get away with acting unjustly, we should do so. And third, in the story of what’s called the statues scrubbed, or the inverted story, that even if you weren’t convinced by the Gyges story, surely if justice produced a bad reputation, and injustice a good one, that you would want to act unjustly.

So those three arguments are Glaucon’s arguments in favor of justice being something with only instrumental value. On his picture, justice is something that is of utility to us in the way that money is of utility to us. It can help us buy our way into things that themselves have intrinsic value.

Socrates’s argument, by contrast, is that justice is something with both of these characteristics. No doubt it is of instrumental utility; he doesn’t deny either Glaucon’s arguments or Adeimantus’s arguments about the ways in which being perceived as just can be of use to us. But in addition, he argues that there is a certain intrinsic worth associated with having one’s soul structured in the way that the just soul is.

Now, I want to point out to you, to be fair to Glaucon and Adeimantus, that there’s a bit of a cheat here. Glaucon and Adeimantus are working with an under-theorized notion of justice. The picture that they have is that justice is roughly acting in conformity with the regulations that society imposes upon us as considered to be meritorious, loosely speaking. Being just is roughly doing what the laws say you should do.

Socrates, by contrast, goes on and gives us a much more sophisticated account of justice. But if those two characterizations are what philosophers sometimes like to call extensionally equivalent, then Socrates isn’t cheating. What it is to be extensionally equivalent, is that you pick out the same set of actions in the world.

So Socrates’ claim is that it’s a law that you’re supposed to be honest and not murder people. But it’s also the case that somebody with a soul structured in the way that he has called “just” will not steal, and not murder people. It’s a norm of justice that one will have piety towards one’s parents. A norm of justice in the conventional sense. So, too, says Socrates, is it a norm of justice in the sense that he’s characterized that you will have piety for one’s parents. And so on.

So the picture is that the notion, the more filled-out notion of justice that Socrates has provided us with, accords well enough with the notion of justice that Glaucon and Adeimantus were interested in, can make this not cheating. And that allows Socrates to make two kinds of arguments in favor of the intrinsic value of justice.

The first comes at the end of Book IV, where he argues that justice is a kind of health. Roughly, justice is to the soul as health is to the body. A healthy body is one whose parts are doing what their parts are supposed to do. Your body is healthy if your heart is pumping blood at the right sort of pace, so that your brain is getting the amount of oxygen that it needs, and your fingertips are getting the amount of blood that they need, and so on.

So just as health is of both intrinsic and instrumental value to us in the body, so too is justice, which is the health of the soul, of both intrinsic and instrumental value to us as spiritual in addition to physical beings. We’re spiritual here in a very modest sense.

So that’s the first argument. The first argument is an idea that presupposes that there’s a way that it’s good for people to work. And we’ll revisit this in the context of our discussion of Aristotle. So there’s a way that your body is supposed to work: The heart is supposed to do this, the lungs are supposed to do this, you knees are supposed to do this, your ears are supposed to do that, and so on. And we have a picture of what health amounts to. So, too, says Plato, the excavation project that he’s engaged in thinking about the city-state analogy brings out what it would be for a soul to be healthy, and it turns out that health for the soul is to be arranged in the way that justice mandates.

So that’s the first argument that he offers. It’s an argument through something that Glaucon and Adeimantus have conceded to have intrinsic as well as instrumental utility, and a claim that once you understand what justice is, you can see the direct analogy between the soul and justice, and the body and health.

The second pair of arguments occurs in Book IX, and concern the question of happiness. The first argument there is an argument that we’ll actually hear again when we read John Stuart Mill at the beginning of our utilitarianism section. And that’s an argument which runs as follows.

The person who has developed the capacity for self-regulation, the self-ruler, has along the way, because of the kinds of beings we are, also experienced all of the other kinds of pleasures. In some ways, this is like the Freudian story. We start off as a bundle of desires, and we take the things that we want, without consideration of their long-term consequences for us. And over time, we come and get that unregulated bundle of needs into a certain kind of order. We regulate it first by means of praise and blame, roughly making use of the honor part of ourselves, and then we regulate it by means of reflection and self-understanding.

So the person who has gotten their soul into a harmonious state is in a subjectively excellent position, because he or she has experienced all of the pleasures that the person who doesn’t do self-regulation has experienced, and in addition, has experienced the kinds of pleasures that are available to us only if our soul is well ordered.

So all of us have experienced the pleasure of checking Facebook and playing Tetris. But only some of us have experienced the pleasure of turning off our Internet during class, and leaving it off and listening to what it is that’s being said by our professor. And those of us who have had the great pleasure of doing the second, says Plato, have recognized that that pleasure is a greater form of pleasure than the pleasure of Angry Birds. I’ll leave it to those of you who have experienced both to assess that argument. So that’s the first argument that he makes in Book IX.

The second argument is actually a very interesting argument, and one for which full understanding would require my going through the allegory of the cave, which I’m not going to do right now. But suffice to say that it is part of the Republic, and part of Plato’s philosophy in general, to say that the kind of earthly pleasures that we experience in interacting with objects are, in fact, a certain kind of unreal pleasure. They aren’t interacting with that which is most real.

What is most real, says Plato, are not the approximations of circles that we encounter when we use the PowerPoint Draw program to make the snowman in the slide. They are the mathematical ideals of circles. The true nature of wisdom, for example, is not the wisdom that we encounter in the individuals around us, though that’s wonderful, but rather the form of wisdom, of which all of these instances are simply imitation.

So, too, with every other pleasure that we have. So there’s the earthly pleasures, and then there’s a domain of things with which we interact which lie beyond the earthly realm.

I spend a lot of time watching children’s movies, being the parent of two of them. And among the movies that I’ve seen recently with my younger child is Narnia. And among the movies that I’ve seen recently with my older child is Inception. And we’ve also watched The Matrix, and we’ve also watched The Truman Show.

All of these are movies that make Plato’s point. The gambit in each of these films is that the reality which you take to be genuine and most profound–this earthly realm, in the case of Narnia, the experience that you’re having right now, in the case of The Matrix, and so on–is in fact, but a shadow of that which truly lies beyond.

And this theme is, in fact, a central theme of almost every religious tradition. That the domain of the secular, the domain of the mundane, the domain of the worldly, is in some sense unreal, and there is, in addition, a domain of the beyond, interaction with which provides a kind of good that is so immeasurably better than goods of interacting with the world, that there’s almost no comparison between them.

And Plato’s Socrates, when he says, the person with the well-regulated soul spends his or her time contemplating the forms, is making exactly the same kind of claim that, for example, a religious Christian would make in saying that in giving up the earthly goods and focusing instead on what is spiritually valuable, one gains a kind of possibility for flourishing that is incomparable to that which you can get in the earthly domain.

So the second argument around happiness claims not merely that the person with the well-regulated soul has experienced all the pleasures and felt subjectively that this one is the best, but, in fact, that that person is correct. That the greatest form of pleasures comes from the well-regulated soul that spends its time interacting not with the mundane and earthly, but with the ideas of the beyond.

Now, final quote. One of the ways of bringing home the point that Socrates has made is by means of vivid imagery. We’ll find throughout, in every single one of the authors that we read, that they are trying to make arguments that appeal to the various parts of your soul. I just gave you a bunch of arguments that ran through reason, and now we’re going to get an image that’s supposed to fix in your mind, the idea for which Plato has just provided argumentation. Here’s how the passage goes. You read it for your reading today.

“Can it profit anyone to acquire gold unjustly if by doing so, he enslaves the best part of himself to the most vicious?” Right? So the top part of the snowman to the bottom part of the snowman. And here’s the analogy. “If he got the gold by enslaving his son or daughter to savage or evil men, it wouldn’t profit him, no matter how much gold he got.” Right? If I tell you, you can have all the money in the world, all you have to do is sell your brother or sister into slavery, I assume that that trade-off wouldn’t be appealing to most of you, and those of you to whom it would be, there are actually courses on peer relations [laughter] over in the psychology department. “It wouldn’t profit him, no matter how much gold he got. How, then, could he fail to be wretched if he pitilessly enslaves the most divine part of himself to the most polluted one?”

So the idea is this. When you steal, when you murder, when you act in ways that let the lower part of your soul do what the higher part of your soul tells you shouldn’t, you’re exactly like the person who has these ill-gotten gains. Just as it’s not a good way to make money to sell your son or daughter into slavery, so, too, Socrates suggests, it’s not a good way to make money to sell the higher part of your soul into slavery. To enslave it to your passions and to your appetites.

Now, this idea that we can take some of the common wisdom about the nature of happiness, but recognize that it captures only part of the truth, is one of the things, one of the many things, that’s going on in the passages from Jonathan Haidt that I had you read for today.

Chapter 3. Jonathan Haidt’s Two Principles of Happiness [00:28:57]

So we read two chapters for today. One was required, chapter five, which was about contemporary theories of happiness. The second, which I recommended to you, was the chapter about virtues. I want to talk about the first of those chapters, the happiness chapter.

So we just heard that Plato points out, or argues, or contends, through this long book, that human flourishing comes not from material wealth and physical goods, but rather from something that it might not occur to you was the source of flourishing: reflection and wisdom. And the arguments that he makes there make use of the resources of the tradition of which he’s a part. They’re set in an ancient Greek context, and they use the argumentative tools of philosophy.

In a similar way, the discussion that Jonathan Haidt provides in chapter five tries to do this that is similar to Plato, colon: It tries to show that there’s some truth in common pictures of what happiness amounts to, but that they haven’t gotten the whole story right. And it does so in part by using the strategy which I described to you earlier. It takes what the common picture looks like, it provides a more profound analysis of it, and it shows that those pick out roughly the same class of things.

And Haidt, in particular, in that chapter, presents us with two claims. The first is one that he calls the progress principle. The discovery–for which there seems to be pretty good both behavioral and neuroscientific evidence, both within the domain of American culture and cross-culturally–that most of our pleasure comes not from the achievement of a goal, though there is some pleasure that comes from that, but from the process of achieving that goal.

And the second–which hearkens back to the material that we read last week from Daniel Kahneman, and the day before that from Jonathan Evans–that because we are more sensitive to changes in goods than to absolute levels of goods, more of something doesn’t always make us happier. More of something tends to make us used to that something and desirous of the change which comes with having even more of that.

The next slide is going to ask you to have your clickers, so if you can take them out, we’ll turn to them. It’s not an interesting slide, I just ask you to have your clickers.

So this gives rise to something which is sometimes called the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the idea that in order to maintain the same amount of happiness, if it’s based on material goods, requires us to run to stay in the same place.

And the psychological principles which underlie the adaptation principle are exactly the principles that governed the cases that Kahneman was describing. That we are, as he showed in the visual system, enormously sensitive to contrasts, and extremely bad at absolute judgments. And we’ll come back to that principle when we read the Cass Sunstein paper in the section in ethics.;

OK. So my question, polling is open, is ”Are you ready to move on?” Press one if: ”Yes, I can’t wait for Aristotle.” Press two if: “No, you have a question about Plato or Haidt.”

OK. So this is just to like re-engage you in case you zoned out, because I’ve been jabbering, and the clickers are supposed to keep you talking [correction: engaged]. OK. We have–oh, shoot. This clock was supposed to start automatically; we already have 118 of you. OK. So if you are somebody–can we jump this, or not? Oh! That was worse. OK. I’m not going to touch this.

So if you are somebody who was in category two, and you have a question about Plato or Haidt that you would like to ask now, please do it before we discover how rare a being you are. Or perhaps how common. All right. No questions? Question.11

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Tamar Gendler: You don’t really understand extensional equivalents. Yes. OK. So that is a philosopher’s term. Let’s see how rare you are, and then I’ll–ah, OK. So though you are in the 9%, I will nonetheless answer your question for you.

So two characterizations are extensionally equivalent if they pick out the same set of things in the world. So if I say: I’m interested in picking out all geometrical figures that have four corners that are equally spaced from one another, and you say, I’m interested in picking out all geometrical figures that have four sides that are of equal length and at right angles to one another, you’re picking out squares and I’m picking out squares, even though we gave different descriptions of what we’re picking out. If I’m picking out all female siblings, and you’re picking out all sisters, we’re picking out the same class of things, even though we’re using different descriptions.

OK. So it’s a democracy. Plato doesn’t think that’s the best form of government, but here we are. We’re going to move on.

Chapter 4. Aristotle on Happiness and Teleology [00:34:54]

All right. Aristotle. So at the very least, right, you’re taking a philosophy class, you deserve to have this picture explained to you. Since you see it on every poster on campus: “Come to the writing center!” I don’t know why they put Plato and Aristotle on the “Come to the writing center,” but I might as well tell you what’s going on in this picture.

So this picture is a famous painting by the great Renaissance painter, Raphael. It’s called The School of Athens. Many of the figures within the larger painting represent his friends. You can go and see this in the Vatican, if you’re interested. In the center of that painting, famously, are Plato, standing right here, and Aristotle, standing right here. Plato is holding in his hand, you can almost read it, a book called the Timaeus, which is a book of cosmology, and he’s pointing upward, many say because he’s pointing to the realm of the forms.

Aristotle, by contrast, is holding in his hand the Ethics, the book that we’re reading, right? The Nicomachean Ethics, there it is. You have a book that’s on the wall of the Vatican. That’s so exciting. You have a $6 paperback copy, but still. You have, in some ways, the book. And Aristotle’s hand is here for one of two reasons. Either because he’s pointing to the earthly domain as part of his denial of the Platonic picture of forms, or because he’s talking about the doctrine of the mean, about which all of you know a great deal, because it’s what we read for today.

OK. So next time you see this picture, at least you’ll know who these two characters are: Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle, as you know, was a student of Plato’s. And the text that we read for today is, to my mind, one of the most profound works of psychology written in the last 2500 years. It is, however, miserably difficult to read, in part because, though Aristotle wrote dialogues, most of those dialogues were lost. And what we have here are basically Aristotle’s lecture notes. You notice that on one of the pages he says,“ and now we’ll go and look at the chart.” Right? He had–like–some papyrus version of these PowerPoint slides. I don’t know if they were animated with–like–people who walked back and forth.

But what we have here are notes of a kind that are rather difficult to read. So because this is, in many ways, my favorite book in the whole world, much of what’s going to go on in the next slide is that I’m just going to give you some quotes from it, and tell you what’s going on in the text.

So this is Aristotle’s Ethics. If Plato is thirty seconds, this is going to take sixty or so. Let me tell you what’s going on.

So the discussion that we read starts at the beginning of Book I, with an argument that’s sometimes called the argument in favor of the summum bonum–you don’t have to write it down, which is why I didn’t put it on the slide–sometimes called the highest good. That which is pursued for its own sake. And the argument here is basically what we might call a regress argument. It’s like the intrinsic/instrumental value argument that we heard in Plato.

The idea is that every good, that is, everything that you seek, is pursued either for itself, or for the sake of something else. And if it’s pursued for the sake of something else, it must bottom out or top up. Summum bonum, the highest good: it must top up in something. And so the inquiry that we engage in when we do what Aristotle calls political science–which is not political science like in the Poli Sci department–it’s political science in the sense of the study of human beings as political, that is, social animals.

So the study of ourselves as socially embedded creatures is the study of what is the highest good for the human. And the highest good for the human being, says Aristotle, is–both in the minds of the common man, that is, both in sort of what you would read in the equivalent of the mass media in ancient Greece, and in the mind of the educated–what was called eudaimonia or flourishing, sometimes translated as happiness. That’s what everybody is going for.

So that’s the beginning of the passages that we read from Book I. There’s the question, what’s the thing that everybody’s after? And the answer is, everybody’s after the same thing. They’re after happiness, flourishing, eudaimonia.

So the next question is this: what sort of happiness? What is it that we mean when we set out to seek happiness? And here Aristotle runs through this inventory of answers that have been provided. And you’ll notice, good student that he is of Plato’s, that this taxonomy here is going to look pretty familiar. Is it the pleasures of gratification? That is, the pleasures that Plato would call the pleasures of appetite? “No,” says Aristotle, and he gives some reasons for that. Is it the pleasures of honor? What Plato would call the pleasures of spirit? “No,” says Aristotle, and he gives some reasons for it. Is it, then, the pleasures of reflection? The things which come from reason? “Yes!” Says Aristotle.

And now he goes on to give some reasons for it. But the reasons that he gives for it look different from the reasons that Plato gave. Because Aristotle rejects Plato’s idea of the forms, Aristotle is not looking to a domain beyond to defend his view. He’s looking to a domain within to defend his view.

It’s 11:17. I’m going to do one more slide, and then we’ll finish up with Aristotle next lecture.

So the question is, if you can’t turn to the forms as your justification for reason–remember, Plato has this explanation: ”Why is reason so good? It lets you connect to a domain beyond yourselves.” Aristotle can’t give that answer. What, then, makes reason so good? Well, here’s the argument.

Every object in the world, he says, has a function. The function of a knife is to cut well. The function of a paperweight is to hold down papers. The function of a laser pointer is to direct attention towards the slide, and so on. And a good one of those things is one which does its function well.

Its function is that which set it apart from other entities. So good paperweights are things that are heavy, and bad paperweights are things that are light, or round, so that they roll off. Or invisible, so that you can’t find them. Or too heavy to move, so that you can’t pick them up off your paper. So when something has a function, a good version of that thing has manifest in itself that which allows that object to perform its function especially well.

Well, what’s the function of human beings? Well, to answer that question, we have to answer the question what is special about human beings? What distinguishes us from plants, which take in nutrition, and from animals, which are capable of locomotion and feeling sensation? What distinguishes us from those beings is reason. So just as knives are great when they cut well, humans are great when they do that special human thing especially well when they reason well.

“Reason is,” he writes at 1098, “the special function of a human being.” What, then, is the human good? Well, the good for a knife is to be most manifestly knife-like, right? I mean, all those magic swords that you get in plays and movies and books? What makes them good swords? That they’re especially able to slay your enemies, right? That’s why the swords are good swords.

So what makes you the Sword of Lancelot of human beings? It’s that your soul is structured in such a way that you do what is best and most completely and distinctly human. The good human being is the one that does the human stuff best of all, and the human stuff turns out to be reasoning and acting in accord with virtue.

So the question that we’ll turn to at the beginning of next lecture–and you’re all in a position to read the punchline, in fact, you should have read the punchline for today–is what does the virtue look like that makes us distinctly and most excellently human, and how is it cultivated?

So for Thursday, we are reading three really fantastic things. We’re reading selections from The Iliad, and I’ve given you two choices of ways to do that. Please look at the reading guide. You can either read all of Book I or you can look at the context of each of the passages that Jonathan Shay gives us, and I’ve given you instructions how to do that. We’re reading Jonathan Shay’s incredible book, Achilles in Vietnam, and we’re also reading Stanley Milgram’s famous 1963 “behavioral study of obedience” paper. So we’ll start with our Aristotle, and then we’ll move on to our discussions of those three.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]