Does every natural thing have a unique telos?

Another question about ends (τέλη) arising from Gabriel Richardson Lear’s excellent Happy Lives and the Highest Good. The problem is how to understand what Aristotle means when he says that something can be chosen both for its own sake and for the sake of happiness (εὐδαιμονία). One solution would have such ‘middle-level goods’, i.e., final (τέλειον) but not absolutely final (ἁπλῶς τέλειον) goods, have two ends – one contained within themselves and another further end that they happen to promote in virtue of being intrinsically valuable, namely, happiness (p. 37). The first problem Lear sees for this solution is that the two ends would have to coincide regularly, but by chance, a type of phenomenon Aristotle rules out in the Physics. She continues,

But at a deeper level, this interpretation is questionable because it supposes that a good may have two separate, teleologically unconnected ends. Although I have not yet found evidence to this effect, I doubt very much that Aristotle would admit that the proper pursuit of or natural coming to be of a thing could have two entirely independent ends. For if we say that a thing has two ends, we are saying that it has two separate natures or forms. (p. 38)

This is a fascinating argument. The question I want to get at is whether Aristotle has a metaphysical commitment  against the natural coming to be of a thing having two independent ends. I presume that a clear counter-example would suffice to dispute this claim.

As it happens, I wrote a paper recently arguing that Aristotle conceives of the πόλις in just these terms. Aristotle says, famously, that the πόλις comes to be by nature (Pol. I.2, 1253a1-2). But just a few lines before, he claims that the πόλις has two related, but independent ends. For it comes to be for the sake of living (τοῦ ζῆν), but exists for the sake of living well (τοῦ εὖ ζῆν) (1252b29-30).

Of course, “living well” just is another name for εὐδαιμονία (EN I.4, 1095a18-20), so we might think the same thing going on in EN I is going on here. But the πόλις isn’t a “middle-level” good in the same sense as virtuous action or friendship, because we don’t choose it for itself. Another objection might be that the two ends aren’t independent in the sense required by Lear’s claim – after all, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between “living” and “living well”. For Aristotle, however, there’s a world of difference, as would perhaps be more evident if he had said “self-sufficiency” rather than “living” and “happiness” rather than “living well” (the balance of the line gives it the feeling of a slogan). Mere living indicates what is necessary for self-preservation and the preservation of the kind – food, shelter, sex. Living well, as Aristotle argues in EN I, has nothing to do with these things, though he admits some external goods are required before it can be secured (cf. I.8). Rather, living well, happiness, is a matter of rational activity in accordance with virtue (I.7, 1098a16-18).

Another possible objection to my suggestion that Aristotle conceives of the city as having two independent ends is the lack of parallelism in the claim: might there be some significance in the change from “comes to be” (γινομένη) to “exists” (οὖσα)? I think there is some significance, but that it doesn’t jeopardize the claim of these two ends to be ends of the city. Aristotle’s rather subtle point in this passage is this: on the one hand, the city comes to be from communities that seek self-preservation: the village, the household, the male-female dyad, and the master-slave dyad. It is the fulfillment of these earlier communities because it possesses “the limit of virtually every kind of self-sufficiency” (1252b27-9). It is, as I would put it, the final or ultimate economic community. But on the other hand, when it comes into existence, the city is also something more than that – we would choose the city for material self-sufficiency alone, but we also choose it because it completes our nature as political and social creatures. It is the city alone that makes virtuous activity even possible, something Aristotle perhaps hints at in the EN by describing his inquiry there as, in a certain sense, political (I.2, 1094b10-11). The city is most of all the political community (Pol. I.1, 1252a6-7), indeed the only political community.

The dual nature of the city as the last economic community and the first political community is indicated in precisely parallel terms in Pol. III.6 where Aristotle says, referring back to this discussion and expanding slightly on it,

People are naturally political and social creatures; that’s why even when they don’t need any help from each other, they desire no less to live together. But the common advantage also brings them together, insofar as it contributes to each person getting a share of living well. This, then, is most especially their end, both for all in common and each separately. But people come together and maintain the political community also for the sake of life itself. For perhaps there is some share of nobility also in life alone, provided that the hardships of life are not excessive. It’s clear that most people will endure great suffering whilst clinging to life, as though there were some measure of welfare and natural sweetness in it. (1278b19-31)

This later gloss on the same thought makes it clear, I think, that the ends of mere life and of living well are independent, since they are independently choiceworthy.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether the dual nature of the city jeopardizes any of Aristotle’s metaphysical commitments. One might say, for instance, that Aristotle never questions the fact that the city’s political aspects are more ultimate and more essential than its economic aspects. Does it make sense for ends (and hence, forms and natures) to be formally independent, but hierarchically arranged? One might think that the various kinds of soul instantiated by humans – rational, perceptive-locomotive, nutritive – are an exactly parallel case.

    • Nakul
    • September 19th, 2010

    Which Physics passage were you thinking of?

      • Dhananjay
      • September 19th, 2010

      Not me; Lear cites II.8, 198b35. The broader passage is 98b34-99a8.

      ταῦτα μὲν γὰρ καὶ πάντα τὰ φύσει ἢ αἰεὶ οὕτω γίγνεται ἢ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ, τῶν δ’ ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου οὐδέν. οὐ γὰρ ἀπὸ τύχης οὐδ’ ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ ὕειν πολλάκις τοῦ χειμῶνος, ἀλλ’ ἐὰν ὑπὸ κύνα· οὐδὲ καύματα ὑπὸ κύνα, ἀλλ’ ἂν χειμῶνος. εἰ οὖν ἢ ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ ἢ ἕνεκά του εἶναι, εἰ μὴ οἷόν τε ταῦτ’ εἶναι μήτε ἀπὸ συμπτώματος μήτ’ ἀπὸ ταὐτομάτου, ἕνεκά του ἂν εἴη. ἀλλὰ μὴν φύσει γ’ ἐστὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα πάντα, ὡς κἂν αὐτοὶ φαῖεν οἱ ταῦτα λέγοντες. ἔστιν ἄρα τὸ ἕνεκά του ἐν τοῖς φύσει γιγνομένοις καὶ οὖσιν.

      “For these and all natural things happen either necessarily or generally in a given way, as none of those that happens by chance or automatically does. For frequent rain does not seem to happen, whether by chance or accident, in winter, but only in summer, nor heat in summer, but only if it’s winter. If, then, things seem to be either accidental or for the sake of something, and if these things cannot come about either by accident or on their own, then they are for the sake of something. But surely everything of this kind is natural, as even those who claim these things would agree. So, in fact, being for the sake of something belongs to what comes to be and exists by nature.”

    • Nakul
    • September 19th, 2010

    You’re right, I think, that the soul is exactly parallel, but I think the idea of ‘formally independent, but hierarchically arranged’ needs some glossing. It could be that one thing (soul, city, etc) has many parts/aspects which are formally independent from _each other_, but not independent from the thing of which they’re parts/aspects, necessitating some sort of hierarchy, which is not merely accidental.

    • djr
    • September 23rd, 2010

    The metaphysical status of the polis is very unusual, though. It isn’t a substance, despite the frequent analogies (if we take it straightforwardly as a substance, things become incoherent very quickly – see Miller NJR ch. 2). So I wouldn’t rely on the polis as a good counter-example, since it seems very unlikely that Aristotle thinks that the polis is a ‘natural substance’ in the sense of being a unified whole with its own internal principle of motion and rest.

    One also might wonder whether coming to be for the sake of X and existing for the sake of Y really counts as a counter-example to Lear’s point.

    I would challenge her earlier on. What is it, exactly, that doesn’t coincide regularly? Certainly not, say, acting justly and living well, or drinking a moderate amount and acting in a sound-minded way. Furthermore, if the principal issue here is how intrinsically valuable goods could also contribute to happiness, then there is nothing remotely irregular about that: they just do count as constituents of happiness insofar as they are intrinsically valuable. There’s nothing ‘by chance’ or ‘teleologically unconnected’ about it.

    It is also strange to talk about ‘goods’ having two ends: why not instead talk about actions having multiple ends or as contributing to multiple goods? When that happens, it seems irrelevant whether the contribution is per accidens; it can still make the action choiceworthy in a way that it would otherwise not be.

    So, in short, I don’t find the objection problematic at all. Your response may work, but the polis is metaphysically exceptional and therefore not good for making general points.

  1. January 27th, 2011

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